June 29, 2019
Early last month, Josh Hawley, the newly-elected senator from Missouri, gave a speech about big tech at the Hoover Institute. He made a couple points that caught my attention, such as when he said this:
“Social media only works as a business model if it consumes users’ time and attention day after day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we did perfectly well without social media, for the entire known history of the human race with itself. It needs to replace those activities with time spent on social media. So that addiction is actually the point.”
“This is what some of our brightest minds have been doing with their time for years now. Designing these platforms, designing apps that integrate with them. I mean, what else might they have been doing?”
I was pleased to hear Senator Hawley emphasize these issues of addictiveness and value because they echo the concerns I heard from the vast majority of people I met during the book tour for Digital Minimalism.
It’s important to hear public figures cite these problems, because as I’ve written before, much of the media coverage on the big tech backlash focuses on what I call legal-techno geek issues, such as privacy, data portability, and content moderation.
These are important topics, and if you’re a journalist, or a social media personality, or an academic, or a political think tank type, they can be quite exciting to debate and nuance. They also have the advantage of being addressable by big swing legislative fixes, which are satisfying to imagine. (Indeed, in the recent New Yorker review of Digital Minimalism, the reviewer’s main criticism was that I avoided suggesting such systemic fixes.)
But for the average person — who doesn’t host a YouTube interview show, or cover politics, or publish research papers on network privacy — the legal-techno geek issues are not why they’re uneasy about their devices.
What they really care about is the fact that they’re looking at these glowing screens more than they know is useful or healthy, and to the exclusion of things that are more important. They care that their relationship with services like social media and streaming videos is leeching quality from their life.
So I think Senator Hawley got this right in his Hoover Institute speech. Which is why I was somewhat resigned to learn that just yesterday he introduced a piece of legislation that fell back into core techno-legal geek topics (in this case, regulating content moderation policies).
The listless and anxious 25-year-old, compulsively swiping and tapping his smartphone, bleeding away life force with each steam whistle tweet or Instagram artifice, won’t be helped if Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is repealed. But if this same 25-year-old learns exactly how his devices have been sapping his natural drive, and is shown what he might do about it, he will have a real shot at serious improvement.
We need more focus on what Senator Hawley talked about last month at the Hoover Institute, and probably a little less focus on the types of issues he’s now attempting to legislate. It’s not that the latter are meaningless, it’s just that fixing them won’t by itself provide meaning to those lost in their screens.
My long-time friend Scott Young has a new book coming out in August called Ultralearning. I’ve been talking with Scott about this book since it was still just an inkling of an idea, and I couldn’t be more excited about the way it turned out. I’ll provide a real review when it’s launched, in the meantime, however, if you’re thinking about it buying it, consider doing so early to reap the pre-order rewards Scott is offering (which include an interview with yours truly).