American Consequences - January 2018



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. 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

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-


January 2018

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