There is a entire new generation in America that is not adapting to life. Addicted to phones, iPads, and other screens, young Americans are impaired when it comes to wrestling with their darker selves or going out into the world—both of which are necessary and humbling stages of the natural maturation of a human being. The result has been the kinds of mental and spiritual problems that we see manifest among the young: eating disorders, depression, social awkwardness. On college campuses students have meltdowns over visiting speakers, shriek hysterically over minor school policies they don’t like, and retreat into “safe spaces.”
In an era of technological acceleration, gauging the effect of new technology on our lives is ever more important. Thus, I welcome Justin Buckley Dyer’s skeptical take on the influence of social media on social life, even if I am largely skeptical of his skepticism and even in greater disagreement with his views on technological progress in general.
Dyer suggests that social media will distract people from making the real connections with others essential to human flourishing. My first reason for doubt is the lack of data. Do people have fewer real friendships because they have more “friends” on Facebook? To be sure, Dyer is not at fault for not supplying a quantitative analysis. Even though our computational age is more amenable than ever to empiricism, we do not have the data to answer that question. Moreover, to answer it, we would have to quantify true friendship—a process that Dyer might well think would defeat the entire enterprise.
But even in the absence of complete information, we can see that social media can be a complement to rather than a substitute for conventional friendship.
This latest podcast is with Joel Kotkin, America’s Demographer-in-Chief, on his recently released book, The New Class Conflict. Kotkin and I discuss his grave warning of an American future that no longer contains the promises of democratic capitalism. Two groups, in Kotkin’s telling, have converged and share a vision of America that is unconcerned with economic growth, shared prosperity, and the need to rein in state power. The book’s opening argues that this class of tech entrepreneurs and the "Clerisy" pose a fundamental challenge to America's self-understanding as a nation of economic mobility: In the coming decades, the greatest existential threat…
A friend recently introduced me to the GPS app Waze, which promises—warning: I will likely botch the lingo—a crowdsourcing solution to traffic: “Nothing can beat real people working together. Imagine 30 million drivers out on the roads, working together towards a common goal: to outsmart traffic. . . .” Waze users report traffic incidents and driving conditions in exchange for points. I can’t tell what these points are actually good for—probably something that exceeds my understanding—so the reports seem close to altruistic activity. The app is addicting, invaluable and troubling. It leaves one with the impression of participating in a community that in fact does not exist, of committing acts of altruism that actually require no sacrifice and of making connections that are in reality hollow. Dr. Nisbet, please call your office.
To be sure, one ought not extrapolate more of a message from a navigation app than is actually there, and none of this is a knock on Waze as all it promises to be: a better means of navigation. But Waze is indicative of the false sense of community that social networks can induce: one that is either anonymous, impersonal or, at best, arms-length. Such relationships do not involve the same sorts of accommodations and complications that Claes Ryn reminds us sustained, personal, face-to-face interactions require. Social networks instead enable connections on the individual’s terms, at times and places of his or her choosing.