For the last couple years, I’ve been asking a specific question to friends and family. I really like this question because it does have an answer, but no one could possibly know what the answer is… yet. Consequently, this sparks all kinds of interesting conversations and debates.
The question is: “What is society happily doing today, that in 100 years will be universally agreed to be unhealthy or bad for humanity?”
Obviously this question has many answers, but only in hindsight.
Doctors used to recommend certain brands of cigarettes over others. Lead-based paint was used in houses because it was so durable and moisture resistant. Asbestos was used as building material and insulation due to its many positive properties. Sign me up!
Of course, with a little bit of time, research, and collective understanding of the negative side-effects of each of these previously lauded products, they were all demonized, and rightfully so.
In response to my question, some people mention nutrition-based claims that we may later find out we were wrong about the whole time. Specifically the debates around GMOs, pesticides, artificial sweeteners and the like.
I’ve also heard the answer of burning fossil fuels. We know that there are better alternatives, but we really have no idea when (or to what extent) the damage we are currently doing will catch up with us.
My personal answer for anyone that will engage in this game of hypothesis is the proliferation of social media’s influence and the signing away of our digital rights. Certainly there are people much smarter than me working on these problems. The EU seems to be far ahead of the U.S. in terms of data protection and privacy for their citizens with their passage of GDPR regulation a couple years ago.
There’s also nothing novel about my claim. Many people have pointed out the repercussions of social media and digital advertising. But many more people remain blissfully ignorant about the problem entirely. Even the middle ground, those that are aware of it but don’t think it’s a big deal, are hard to convince of the long term downsides. “We’ve always had competition for our attention by marketers,” they say. That’s true.
But never on this scale, never this covertly, and never this effectively.
Thankfully, many of the brilliant minds that are most worried about this issue have recently released a documentary/drama on Netflix called “The Social Dilemma”. Here’s the trailer:
To summarize the various engineers and tech executives that decided to speak up about this: we, as a species, are ceding control of our digital lives and physical minds to the highest bidders and the most advanced tech firms.
Their most generous plan of action is to profit from our increasingly fragmented attention spans, while the most nefarious interpretation would say they are tearing the fabric of society apart under the guise of “giving the people what they want”.
I believe the true problem lies somewhere in the middle. But it’s a compelling case for why teenage suicides are on the rise, why there has been a measured (not just perceived) increase of political polarization, and why a generally pessimistic and reactionary cloud seems to hang over not just our news feeds, but the content we create and share too.
Algorithms, by their nature, are written to perform a function. And that function has a general lack of regard for what is true, healthy, or productive, especially if the function prioritizes engagement over all else.
Fake news spreads faster than real news. Clickbait is more compelling than nuanced discourse. Root causes are assigned with haste, and once these seeds are sown, it can be almost impossible to persuade people back to the center of a cause or problem.
Unfortunately, the center is truly the only place where lasting progress can occur. Otherwise the pendulum will just swing back in the opposite direction undoing any positive change because the change wasn’t agreed upon by the majority.
All of this produces enough dopamine, self-affirmation, and insulated echo chambers to keep us engaged and scrolling and sharing and nodding our heads. We are each seeing our own version of reality. And that reality is rarely saying “you are good enough”, or “you might be wrong”, or “let’s take this offline”.
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I’m also not as anti social media as the film advocates we should be. Mainly because I believe it really is the natural evolution of human connection and I believe we will get better at it. Maybe just not this decade.
The problem isn’t that the internet is evil, it’s that most of social media highlights our differences rather than our similarities. We lose sight of the commonalities because we aren’t doing what primates do best: interacting in meat space. Sharing visual cues, firing off mirror neurons, and seeing the entire person, not just their username and highlight reel.
To extol the virtues of the internet, I’d like to point to the myriad new services and products we’ve come to enjoy and rely on thanks to this innovation.
In a recent study of forty six major inventions, the time it took for the first competing copy to appear fell steadily from thirty-three years in 1895 to three years in 1975. And that was pre-internet. We are only 3 decades into the possibilities of what an exponential increase in information exchange can do for the world.
The same technologies which work against us also work for us: predictive health analytics, increased accessibility for the disabled, climate change modeling, access to free education like Khan Academy or Crash Course, not to mention all the personal and intimate moments loved ones can now take part in via Facebook or Instagram even if they live across the country or world.
Using this newfound connectivity, capitalism has sought to increase output due to competition (it has to!). Corporations try to do the same work with less employees through the use of these new ideas which will open up new channels of innovation to improve profits to hire more people to implement new ideas and spawn more innovation and so on and so forth in an upward cycle of progress.
So you could say I’m bullish on the human capacity for improving society, but bearish on the timeline. Thankfully with a long enough perspective, these things have a tendency to sort themselves out. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to anticipate and solve the problem now.
In regards to solutions, this film wraps up quickly with only a few, but that’s because it’s a really big and difficult problem to solve.
Anti-smoking campaigns started in the early 1900s and yet smoking peaked in 1945 and then stayed there for many decades thereafter. People still smoke today. Not because they are ignorant of the health effects, but because they can’t quit. It’s a part of them.
What the film does offer as a solution is just as inelegant as everything I write on this site, which is to remove social media where you can and prevent it from becoming a part of you (or at least begin to reverse the side-effects).
I like this solution, but I also don’t think that the documentary needs to offer solutions so much as it needs to shine awareness on the issues. It does this remarkably well with a realistic drama embedded throughout the script, as well as excellent visual effects, charts, and expert opinions.
As if the title of this article didn’t betray my bias, you should definitely watch this movie.
Then summarily delete your social media accounts and strictly follow my blog instead. I promise this isn’t just a long con to get you to believe in a conspiracy theory against big tech, all the while sneaking more and more ads onto my site and finally asking you to create an account and upload a profile picture and tag your ten closest friends…
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