The ugly side of information technologies

I think future generations will not understand how disruptive or damaging some ICT have been because they will be living in subtly different cultural systems

When I was still working at a British university, a Pakistani student came in for a tutorial and asked me why British students got so upset about social media trolls. 

He asked me if I’d experienced the scale of trolling that goes on in Pakistan, and I confirmed that I had indeed seen some eye-watering ugly comments on social media in Pakistan. 

Apparently, there was a British student in tears because someone had written an extremely aggressive response to something they’d posted. The Pakistani student asked me why British people didn’t just ignore those messages and get on with their lives. 

Surely, he said, it’s not ugly words that we need to freak out over, but ugly actions. When they come to our homes and our offices breaking windows, that’s when he said we should be crying and getting genuinely upset.

The link between information communication technologies (ICT) and other patterns of communication is an interesting one. Clearly, ICT doesn't just appear in a vacuum. 

They nestle (or worm) their way into existing systems of communication and relationships. Horst and Miller wrote a book about the impact of the cell phone on the Caribbean and argued that the communicative and social systems that had developed around the Caribbean were ideal for the adoption of cell phones. 

People already had a need for maintaining contact with people over geographical distances because of widespread migration. In places with less migration, cell phone take-up was slower because the need wasn’t there — though evidently even in those places, with the introduction of the smartphone and “smart” bureaucracies the need has been manufactured!

Once the basic infrastructure for cell phones was established in Pakistan, just as in the Caribbean, take-up was rapid and enthusiastic. Like the Caribbean islands, there are pockets of employment opportunities surrounded by metaphorical seas of poverty and frustration. People move to find work. 

They also have a long history of moving for religious and social reasons. Descriptions of travelling to visit shrines and family have been a part of the ethnography of Pakistan for as long as anthropological work has been carried out. 

Now that our phones have the capacity to connect us to the worlds of social media, we are no longer just talking about maintaining existing information networks but are tapping into something altogether more alienating and manipulable.

In what must now be a slightly out-of-date report from 2019, the United Kingdom’s communications regulator, OfCom (, reported that half of adults in the UK get their news from social media. 

Curiously, only 37% of people say that they find the news they get from social media impartial. I found myself re-posting a death announcement of a beloved elder statesman only to discover a few hours later that the person is alive and well. So, I get a lot of my news from social media, but I don’t trust social media and I definitely don’t believe it’s impartial.

This raises familiar debates about how these social media might change the way we think and behave. There is a longstanding hypothesis in anthropology that literacy changes the cognitive processes of the people within the societies in which it is found. 

In my discipline, the idea is linked indelibly to Jack Goody, but there have been a few others from other disciplines along the way. The argument goes that when we externalise our records of things, then we don’t need to store and transmit information the way we did when we had to rely on oral transmission. 

Some have argued that ICT have a comparably revolutionary effect on human cognition and social relations. I remain sceptical about the cognition part of the argument, but I’m becoming persuaded that social relations have undergone profound change because of ICT. 

The connected fragmentation that we are seeing in politics is one obvious example. We don’t have the luxury of genuinely existing in echo chambers—we are arguably more exposed to other echo chambers than ever before. 

In the “good old days” we could indulge ourselves in narrower and more geographically restricted social circles. Now, however much I may disapprove of the “other” sides of any debate, I have been confronted with their “erroneous” views on a regular basis thanks to social media. 

But because I don’t trust social media, rather than disrupt my own positions, I can dismiss counter-views as false narratives that are manipulated by bots controlled by malicious agents who want to sow discord in the world.

I am left with a dilemma. I am sympathetic to my Pakistani student’s solution to the problem — ignoring it is an attractive option for those of us who generally feel secure. It’s less attractive for those who may justifiably worry about threats going beyond the vacuous social media sphere and being carried out in real life. 

The link between online trolling and real violence isn’t simple, but it exists. It isn’t possible to control social media. Even if we might manage it within one jurisdiction, there will always be places that are harder to police. 

Just as literacy didn’t transform societies in a single generation, I am not optimistic that our cultures and social institutions will adapt to control or contain the damage of ugly internet communications within my lifetime. 

Eventually, I think future generations will not understand how disruptive or damaging some ICT have been because they will be living in subtly different cultural systems. 

On the surface, they may look familiar, but they will be sufficiently modified to either normalise online manipulation of hatred or there will be robust social controls that don’t depend on law enforcement to be effective. 

For now, I am just grateful that I am one of the lucky ones who can stick his head in the sand and ignore some of the truly vicious social media comments that have occasionally been directed my way.

Professor Stephen Lyon is the inaugural dean for Aga Khan University’s new Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).