On New Year’s Eve 1979, I was eleven, cozy in my pajamas after a nice hot bath. I lay on my belly on the carpet of my grandparents’ living room, filling the pages of a sketch pad with dreams of the new decade to come. The Eighties were going to be kick-ass!
My grandparents lounged in lazy boy chairs and smoked as we watched an episode of M*A*S*H. Later we watched Lou Grant. I know these details now because I still have the sketch pad, and I’m reading the notes. (I just confirmed these shows were broadcast on the day in question, although there’s no mention of what we watched in the interim one hour between the shows.)
I didn’t take notes of every evening, but it was the first time I was conscious of entering a new decade. I drew spaceships and electric cars (the kind of stuff Elon Musk works on now, in real life), and other beneficial tech that would no doubt improve our lives in the future. Technology was exciting and cool. It would have been impossible to imagine an uncontrolled psychological experiment performed on the human race for the purpose of selling products and ideas, let alone draw it in my sketch pad. The inability to conceive of such a thing then is why many people were slow to understand the negative impact of social media today.
(I didn’t intend for this to be another post about the negative impact of social media, but it’s useful as a way of further defining what I mean by beneficial tech.)
Flash back to the scene of me watching TV with my grandparents on the last day of 1979. This was the golden era of TV, when there were just three competing networks who were in business to sell advertising. At the start of each show there was a commercial break, and another cluster of ads every fifteen minutes thereafter, with a few national ads and maybe a couple slots for local stuff. There were probably twenty or thirty ads aired during the time my grandparents and I watched TV that night, but nobody was paying attention. Commercials were for socializing, grabbing a bowl of ice cream, or taking a bathroom break. TV shows like M*A*S*H were not created for the purpose of selling things. Their entertainment value was incidental to the advertisement business that supported the platform on which they aired.
On the surface it looks like the content of Facebook is also incidental to its ads. But the amount of content is infinite, and “the algorithm” chooses what each individual sees. Put back in the TV age, this would be like everyone watching a slightly different version of the same show. At some point during an episode of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye would pause, look directly at me, and wink, holding the toy I hadn’t received for Christmas. “Still want one of these?” On an emotional level that’s how Facebook works.
Except it takes time for this magic to do its thing. The tech needs to learn every nuance of our behavior and moods. This requires hundreds of hours of our attention. In order to harvest the maximum amount of attention, social media companies employ armies of psychologists and developers to engineer addiction. The idea is to silo people into easily-marketable groups, and the best way to do this is to get them hooked and incite emotional reactions. It just so happens the easiest human emotions to tweak are all negative: anger, rage, hatred, and fear. Multiply this effect by billions of tweaked individuals and the result is a world of angry, depressed, divided masses who view the people on the other side of their engineered, bipolar worldview as sub-human.
It doubly sucks because on almost every measurable level we’re living in the best time in all of human history.
What to do? It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t use social media, because everyone else does. Anyone who abstains from the madness is breathing in toxic fumes, second-hand-smoke.
My grandparents were cool, not because the commercial brainwashing of the day had convinced me that smoking was cool (it very likely had), but because they were fun people and I loved them. They loved me too, and would’ve never intended to do me harm; but one side-effect of hanging out with them was a continual lungful of second-hand smoke. At the time, I didn’t mind the smoke. Nobody did. It was 1979.
Is social media even less beneficial than cigarettes? On the micro level there are no doubt positive things that happen on Facebook and other platforms, but it’s possible to argue this point. Cigarettes were intentionally addictive and non-smokers breathed in the harmful byproduct. Forty years later, a technology called social media is intentionally addictive and non-users experience harmful byproducts. But the difference is that social media is also intentionally toxic. Cigarettes were incidentally toxic. If there had been a way for tobacco companies to engineer their product so that it didn’t kill their customers, then I’m sure they would’ve done it. Social media companies are colossal advertising platforms that purposely divide people, and mass-produce negativity for the purpose of selling products and ideas.
Should social media be regulated like tobacco? Maybe, but we’d need new laws. Anti-trust litigation isn’t the right tool. Alphabet and Facebook are indeed monopolies. (Their combined market capitalization is $1.3 trillion dollars as of last year, and no one else is even close.) But monopoly is not the problem. The problem is that social media companies are wielding unchecked control over a dangerous technology that does measurable harm to society. How is this not the most alarming thing in the world? Would it be beneficial to humanity if this market became more competitive through government anti-trust intervention? I don’t think so. Instead, the ad-based business model needs to go.
Social media should be sold as a premier service. In the past thirty years companies like HBO and Netflix obliterated the ad-based model of the big three TV networks. It turned out there was a big market for quality entertainment. The result was Peak TV. Shows like M*A*S*H were great, but any given show on Netflix today would be the best show on TV forty years ago. This further defines what I mean by beneficial tech.
A hundred years from now historians will look back on this time and see early social media as humanity’s first big mistake with AI. The technology is at a nascent stage. It can be a bridge to something better down the road.
So what about my dreams of a kick-ass decade? The Eighties turned out to be filled with a mix of miracles and personal tragedies, like any decade for anyone. There was also an explosion of fantastic entertainment and exciting change. Still, things are getting better. I’m optimistic about the new decade. Let the Roaring Twenties begin!