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Accepted Paper:

The Sentient Social Network: How can anthropology help big tech to build a more compassionate cyber society?  
Matthew Adams (Brunel University)

Paper short abstract:

The rise of social media has often been associated with an increased polarisation of online communities and a decline in mental health. Drawing on three years' research with online communities in the US, UK, and China, I present a vision for a future cyber society that is more compassionate.

Paper long abstract:

'Cyber society' encompasses the new forms of sociality made possible by the integration of human social interaction with major AI components. My respondents in VR routinely use AI-assisted voice modulation or machine learning algorithms that help construct their virtual social spaces and personae. All on social media have their emotions and socialising regulated in some way by search-and-suggestion algorithms, by AI-assisted cameras and filters, by information feeds. Already the social consciousness of the groups I study is a human-AI composite.

Anthropologists are uniquely capable of guiding the development of algorithms that can monitor users’ mental and physical health within a platform. Using empirical ethnographic data we can train algorithms to detect those at risk of, for instance self-harm or substance abuse. These possibilities necessarily require a new ethics, which this paper is intended to help instigate.

In my work researching vaccine hesitancy, I have discerned a runaway process of polarisation that emerges naturally from the high velocity of communication expedited by the algorithms that run social media. Echo chambers. I find that this polarisation plays out unconsciously, with respondents finding themselves adopting views they never thought they could hold as a direct result of the fissioning of social groups. They are pulled into particular patterns of thought and behaviour.

This paper will propose a possible future in which a social network as a whole, as a cybernetic organism, can become, with the help of anthropologists, sentient: aware of itself, of how it feels, and so to develop into emotional maturity.

Panel P01b
AI and interdisciplinary Futures Anthropology
  Session 1 Tuesday 7 June, 2022, -