I’m much less concerned with who is president than what’s happening in our pockets. For all the media chatter this week, after networks rolled out their top talent in tony newsrooms, the most important segment was arguably Tristan Harris’s appearance on “The Joe Rogan Experience.”
Harris, who you may recognize from “The Social Dilemma,” is a Google ethicist turned Silicon Valley whistleblower. After four days, his two-hour discussion with Rogan has 2.7 million views. I disagree with him on a host of issues, but Harris is completely correct that conversations about bias and censorship and disinformation are actually downstream of the conversation we need to have about the technology itself.
Like other researchers, Harris describes smartphones as slot machines, tempting us constantly with the prospect of dopamine boosts via social media apps. Those apps, from Gmail to Facebook to Instagram to YouTube to Twitter to TikTok, are deliberately designed to maximize our attention. That’s how they compete with one another, and that’s how they make money. That means the more time they can get us to spend on our smartphones, the more money they make. They’re making us worse and it’s making them rich.
This is why Twitter, for instance, prizes bombast and conflict. It’s what sucks us in. We’re increasingly interacting with each other in forums that involve no face-to-face contact, less accountability to our immediate physical community, publish our thoughts in digital stone, and incentivize conflict. It’s changing us, changing our children, weakening our culture, and absolutely decimating almost our entire media.
It’s one thing to be addicted to a physically unhealthy product like cigarettes. It’s another thing to be addicted to a product that controls much of our discourse and personal interaction.
An exchange between Kara Swisher and Tom Nichols on Twitter captured this well. Where Nichols argued Facebook has too much power because “Americans are zombies,” Swisher countered with the issue of addiction.
Obvi they don’t get blamed for all, but addiction to platforms is complex and irresistible in comparison. Unlike other media, the way it has been designed has been careless and dangerous when it comes into contact with humans. https://t.co/QxVS07ruac
— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) November 4, 2020
To some extent, they’re both right. Duped by the flowery Obama-era promises of a beautiful interconnected modern world peddled sincerely by the hoodie brigade, we were much too casual about these products. We should have been smarter. To the extent we’re able to be more careful about our use of these apps, we should now to be aware enough to make better choices.
We do, however, need much more research on what social media is doing to our brains, and how that’s shaping society. We may also need legislative solutions, loathe as I am to ever seek government interference. Breaking up monopolies will help create competition, but as consumers we need to prove there’s a demand for more ethical tech. And our lawmakers and Silicon Valley overlords need to get innovative.
Tech addiction, not bias or disinformation or censorship, is subtly becoming the single most important issue in our politics right now because so much else is downstream of it, from the problems listed above to community breakdown to cancel culture to elite corruption to hyper partisanship to foreign election interference to rising mental health issues. How we’ll begin to address the issue seriously while the Boomer regime remains in charge, I do not know.