What is responsible for the problems we’re having with Big Tech?
In the late 1990s, the end of the century was shaping up to look like the End of History, a capitalist utopia. The Internet was still the “information superhighway” and it was going to make us all smarter and our lives more convenient. The revanchist Russia and wealthy but authoritarian China we contend with today were unthinkable. Wealth and stability derived from liberal democracy and fueled by free-flowing information was going to triumph everywhere.
But somewhere between the attacks of September 11th and the election of Donald Trump things got all mixed up. For the convenience of online shopping and instant connection with our loved ones we seem to be paying a high price in anxiety and mass, institution-wide incompetence. Smartphones have even been blamed for the 25% increase in the suicide rate in the United States since 1999, a rate which has doubled for teens in the last ten years. Nobody seems to know how we got here, but we’re all pretty worked up about it.
That’s why, when I picked up a copy of the latest issue of Harper’s with the cover story “The Dark Hole of Social Media, How the Internet Subverts Democracy,” I thought I was going to read a satisfying hit piece about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. The company he and Cheryl Sandberg run has been blamed for allowing the distribution of propaganda by foreign powers, launching its own antisemitic attacks against George Soros, and of wantonly sharing private customer data to seize market share.
I was looking forward to a few thousand words of Schadenfreude, as the headline promised. Instead, I got something better but tougher to stomach. I got an argument stating that the problem with technology isn’t the algorithms or the screens that regulate our lives. It isn’t the corruption or greed of the people who manage the algorithms or sell the screens. It isn’t even the people who manipulate technology to win market share or elections. The problem is our belief that we can turn over our most vital decisions to non-human systems.
In the words of Fred Turner, the Stanford communications professor who wrote the Harper’s piece, “The new authoritarianism represented by [white nationalist Richard] Spencer and Trump is not only a product of who owns today’s media. It’s also a product of the political vision that helped drive the creation of social media in the first place–a vision that distrusts public ownership and the political process while celebrating engineering as an alternative form of governance.”
Any high school senior fresh from reading 1984 or Brave New World is ready with a list of the dangers of putting engineers in charge of civilization. The more power you hand over blindly to systems that the average, educated citizen cannot understand, the more you risk the dehumanization of daily life. Liberal democracy arose at the end of the 18th Century not on the back of algorithms but because of mass literacy. It was the distribution of power and the surge in education which made us safer and freer, if not more virtuous. Puzzling out our problems in our psyches, on the page, or in the arena of local and national politics is what made us free, and no amount of screens or feeds are ever going to defending freedom easier. That’s Turner’s argument and it’s one I agree with, when I am not too distracted to remember it.
This belief that we can abdicate our political responsibility to well-designed systems is common. I’ve heard it from American liberals and some conservatives, but mostly liberals. If we can just “rethink” or “reinvent” older systems which are “broken,” in the parlance of Silicon Valley, then we will be rid of ignorance and poverty forever. Or we will at least be free to leave its victims behind for long enough to achieve escape velocity. It’s a point of view that’s easier to embrace from Manhattan or Hollywood or the gentrifying downtowns of America’s smaller cities. But there are a whole lot of people who are resentful of the difference between the world on their screens and their daily lives. Think of the favela from the opening of Ready Player One and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. This sense of being left behind is getting strong enough to sort people into new self-identifying camps. It might even be as strong as race or religion.
I was riding through Manhattan with a friend when she pointed to a billboard advertising Fox News which said, simply, “Feeling Left Out?”
Get it? Left. Out.
I am no supporter of Trump and, much as I try to take in all points of view, the vulgarity of Fox on TV or most conservative news in print is simply unpalatable to me. But I do admire the vitality of the right’s rhetoric. For all their reason and triumphalism, the left’s style, as represented by the phlegmatic tone of Obama or the technocratic vocabulary of Hilary just doesn’t inspire me. It speaks to those whom C.S. Lewis called, with empathy rather than accusation, “men without chests,” that is, people with no empathetic investment in their own life or the lives of others. Or you can take it from Robert Frost, whose description of a liberal as somebody who doesn’t know how to take their own side in an argument is one that haunts me often.
There are moments when I’m thumbing through my feeds when I realize I am being asked to give up some of my autonomy, my faith in direct experience, and even the management of my relationships and instead trust opaque systems and feeds and algorithms. In these moments, I recoil.
And it is this same recoiling, in millions of hearts, which detached the U.K. from the EU and which put Donald Trump, as an avatar of resentment, into the most powerful office in America. We need better men and women in our elected offices, yes. But tweeting, clicking, swiping right, and even donating isn’t going to get that done. As Orwell said, it isn’t by making our voice heard that we help the world, but by staying sane. And as the millions of teens and adults who are more anxious, less connected, and less in command of their world after countless hours spent on their phones will tell you, there is no app for that.
And before you rush to name one of dozens of new mental health apps that are being heavily marketed today, I’ll counter by saying that yes, there may be some merit to them. Just as there was some promise that Facebook and twitter would keep us more connected and make us smarter. But they can’t be the whole solution.
After reading Turner’s piece, I realize that it isn’t the quality of the technology that concerns me, but the amount of faith we all put in it. Neil Postman coined the term technopoly to describe a society which doesn’t just govern by technology, but which has surrendered to it as the chief authority. The motto of the technopoly isn’t E pluribus unum but instead, “If it can’t be backed up by data, then it doesn’t really exist.” At least that feels like the set of ideas that unfolds in my head whenever I sit in front of a screen for any length of time.
So one of my resolutions in 2019 is to remember that the screens in my life are tools not solutions. A smartphone does make it easier to keep in touch with people, but I still have to figure out how to peacefully and productively coexist with them. Even love them.
I have no idea how I’m going to remember all this in the battle of life, but I’m going to try. Maybe putting down my phone more often might be a good start.
Anybody have any other ideas?