Don’t Get Stung
By now you’ve no doubt heard the warnings. The Internet is destroying our attention spans, making us lonely, spreading fake news, encouraging us to
do stupid things, and otherwise destroying our minds.
Much of this is true. Loneliness and social isolation are on the rise. We’re more impatient. A survey conducted by Pew Research concluded that “the impact of networked living on today’s young will drive them to thirst for instant gratification, settle for quick choices, and lack patience.” And every day seems to bring a new story of an epic online fail by a business or an individual, usually a politician.
And yet, until recently, the message from the creators of our digital nirvana has remained relentlessly positive. As smartphone use and social networking became ubiquitous during the past decade, so did the lofty promises of Silicon Valley’s technophiliacs.
According to them, we would soon be riding around in self-driving cars, watching earnest documentaries on our virtual-reality goggles while a team of AI assistants efficiently answered our e-mails and texts. It was a networked future of crowd-sourced intelligence and “frictionless sharing,” as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described it. All was enthusiasm and possibility.
Thoughtful skeptics of this utopian vision, such as Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, Jaron Lanier, Evgeny Morozov, Matthew Crawford, and others, have warned us that our lemming-like enthusiasm for these Internet-enabled gadgets is turning us into a digital lumpenproletariat. Yet the tech elite dismiss them as cranky Luddites – people simply too unsophisticated to understand that the algorithms know best.
Why rely on our puny individual brains when we had the vast resources of the collaborative hive mind to make us better, smarter, faster, and more meme-friendly?
After all, why rely on our puny individual brains when we had the vast resources of the collaborative hive mind to make us better, smarter, faster, and more meme-friendly?
And yet, several years ago, when Eric Schmidt, then-chairman of Google, told the Financial Times, “Technology is now relevant to every single challenge in the world in some way, shape, or form,” we probably didn’t expect his wishful thinking to lead to a world where “digital assistants” like Amazon Echo and Alexa eagerly spy on us (as do our children’s Internet-connected toys and baby monitors). Or where our “smart” cars can easily be hacked, and where no one knows how to write in cursive or even memorize a phone number.
We now spend more than 10 hours every day staring at screens (and have the obesity epidemic and sleep problems to prove it). Yes, the digital revolution has brought incredible breakthroughs – especially in consumer convenience – but it’s also given us a great many things we don’t need, such as YouTube celebrities and Soylent. Do the benefits of our online culture outweigh its drawbacks? And what is it doing to our ability to think critically about such questions?
Recently, some of the digital revolution’s most successful revolutionaries have started to publicly question its impact, perhaps signaling a change in our culture’s enthusiasm for technological solutions to every problem. It started with a few stories about Silicon Valley executives enrolling their children in tech-free, neo-Luddite Waldorf Schools, which, as many news outlets noticed, suggests that the people getting rich off of selling us ever-more addictive technologies were themselves practicing the age-old wisdom of the drug dealer: Never get high on your own supply.
Then came a speech at Stanford University by one of Facebook’s first executives, Chamath Palihapitiya, a man who helped build the company into its current status as a global behemoth. Palihapitiya now says the social network “literally is at a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” Facebook is “eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other,” and he admitted he felt “tremendous guilt” for having helped create it. Another early investor in Facebook, Roger McNamee, was blunter, comparing the company’s techniques to those of infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
The people getting rich off of selling us ever-more addictive technologies were themselves practicing the age-old wisdom of the drug dealer: Never get high off your own supply.
Some former Silicon Valley apostles even confessed that they no longer used their own creations. According to the Guardian, Justin Rosenstein, the guy who invented Gchat when he was employed by Google and helped develop Facebook’s Like button, “tweaked his laptop’s operating system to block Reddit, banned himself from Snapchat, which he compares to heroin, and imposed limits on his use of Facebook.”
Even the usually upbeat Mark Zuckerberg has reacted to these expressions of alarm. In a speech to Harvard’s graduating class of 2017, he noted, “But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in communities is declining. Many people feel disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void.” Zuckerberg’s solution was to embark on a much-publicized tour of every state in the U.S. to explore that void, popping into an African-American church in South Carolina to sing spirituals and awkwardly driving a tractor around a farm in Wisconsin.
He clearly enjoyed seeing the faces of all those real people whose lives he farms for profit when they post about them on Facebook. And like all good Silicon Valley saviors, he still thinks he knows what’s best for them. “As I’ve traveled around, I’ve sat with children in juvenile detention and opioid addicts, who told me their lives could have turned out differently if they just had something to do, an after-school program or somewhere to go,” he said. “But it’s not enough to have purpose yourself. You have to create a sense of purpose for others.”
But we are waking up to the fact that Silicon Valley’s purpose for our lives (profit-making) might not always square with our own hopes and dreams. Clearly the improvements our technologies have brought us in terms of speed and convenience haven’t coincided with improvements in our ability to make sound decisions like whether we should do some heart-healthy exercise or just binge-watch Stranger Things instead. Savvy users of social media might acknowledge that they are the product, but they are still feeding the beast.
Silicon Valley has attempted to address some of the public’s concerns about our collective digital overfeeding by creating new technologies to treat the addictions spawned by our use of old technologies. An array of self-control apps promise to deliver us from the evil of mindless digital consumption by asking us to consume even more digital content. There are now countless meditation and mindfulness apps available for download, as well as strict nanny-style programs that temporarily block access to the Internet when you’re trying to get real work done on the computer. There is even an app marketed as a mindfulness-facilitator, called WeCroak, that helpfully reminds you five times a day that you are going to die, along with a carefully curated quote such as “the grave has no sunny corners.” It’s supposed to encourage you to live life to the fullest but seems more likely to leave users reaching for a strong drink.
And yet this is hardly enough to combat the powerful force these technologies have over our minds. Studies have found that even the presence of a smartphone can lead to reductions in cognitive ability – what researchers call “smartphone brain drain.” This is the challenge we’re less eager to face: the demand side, if you will, of the steady supply of digital heroin that Silicon Valley provides. The truth is, we love this stuff, regardless of what it does to our minds. That’s why we keep using it. Research shows that we touch our phones more than 2,000 times every day.
The wealth of virtual temptations available taxes the self-control of even the most disciplined users. Where does that leave the rest of us? Playing video games until we die?
Are we doomed to cede our minds to superior forces of artificial intelligence and carefully crafted algorithms? In his 1948 book, Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener speculated that the human brain might already be so far along the road to “destructive specialization” that it would soon be rendered obsolete. The Silicon Valley engineers and programmers busily hacking away at our remaining attention spans might think so as well. Indeed, many of them are attempting to expand the reach of our technologies into the realm of human emotion, like the researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who are using clips from a Pixar film, Up, to teach artificial intelligence how to recognize feelings.
Perhaps the best way forward is to avoid either extreme and simply recognize our technologies as the simultaneously manipulative and appealing things they are, with the potential to both expand our minds and hobble them. In Technics and Civilization, critic Lewis Mumford, writing way back in the Jurassic age of 1934, warned us that in embracing new technologies, we always risk turning them into crutches. “One is confronted, then, by the fact that the machine is ambivalent,” he wrote. “It is both an instrument of liberation and one of repression.”
It’s a sign of progress that we no longer unthinkingly accept our new digital creations as benevolent. For all its promises of freeing us from human limits, our digital age has paradoxically ended up serving as a firm reminder of our hubris about technology’s power, about how easily persuadable and steered we are by new things, and about how ethical and moral insights don’t always follow from technological breakthroughs. It’s also a reminder that we shouldn’t take for granted that our minds are always fully our own. Our future robot overlords will no doubt agree.
Christine Rosen is one of the founding editors of The New Atlantis, where she now serves as senior editor. She is working on her forthcoming book, The Extinction of Experience, to be published by W.W. Norton. Her past books include Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement and My Fundamentalist Education.
Ms. Rosen’s essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The American Historical Review, and The New England Journal of Medicine.