The Social Dilemma

Posted September 29th, 2020

selectric typewriterI am, by nature, a self-confessed Luddite. I write the early drafts of all of my books on yellow lined pads, and only turn to the computer when it’s time to input the finished draft. I then print out the draft, and write my revisions and editorial notes on the hardcopy. Writing and/or editing on the computer is simply not a thing in my world. If it weren’t for the groundbreaking, time-saving function of digital copy and paste, I doubt I’d have ever turned my IBM Selectric® in for a personal computer at all.

It should come as no surprise that it took another 10 years or more before I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of electronic mail. For years, I had an assistant operate an email address on my behalf, and only took over those duties when she neared the due-date for her first child. I knew what she didn’t: her new baby was going to require all of her attention for quite some time.

Once I was on email, my publishers began nudging me to set up a website, which of course I resisted. I eventually caved, and my site went live the day Bronx Masquerade won the Coretta Scott King Award, at which point fans were starting to search for my online presence. Fine, I thought. But a website was absolutely, positively as far down the digital rabbit hole as I intended to go.

Next, I was drawn onto Facebook which those in the biz touted as a primary tool for promoting books. With marketing departments pushing authors in this direction, this seemed worth a try. Facebook, though, was as far as I was going to go into the world of tech and social media. And I stuck to that, too—right up until I took a second look at Twitter and the impact it seemed to be having on author exposure and book sales. Now, here I am, locked in hook, line, and Twitter handle.

Turns out, there were some excellent reasons for me to avoid the digital rabbit hole, if only I’d known.

I came to understand, fairly early on, how addictive social media can be, but that wasn’t especially worrying. It meant that I needed to be fairly disciplined about my use of it, and I’m a fairly disciplined individual, so that was okay. Then, gradually, I became aware of some of the negative aspects on the vulnerable who were being bullied online by bad actors taking advantage of their anonymity to say and do things, they would never say or do to a person’s face. That was troubling. Then it became apparent that young people were either losing, or deriving their sense of worth from social media likes or responses to their selfies, with or without the use of new-fangled filters. Not good. Social media’s downward slide started picking up speed.

More recently, the toxic environment of Facebook in particular, and social media in general, started getting to everyone. Some folks simply decided to get out of Dodge. I hung in, though, but I became increasingly frustrated when attempts to engage in polite discussions with people of a different political persuasion became impossible. Conversation was being replaced by verbal combat.

Alarm bells didn’t sound off in my head fully until I watched a little documentary called The Social Dilemma. And by little, I mean a bombshell.

Among my takeaways: social media has, by design, worked to eliminate our shared reality. It has, by design, created addiction to itself that’s so strong, even its designers have a difficult time disengaging. This, of course, serves advertisers who want our attention, and need us to be on social media for as long as possible, each and every day. They are the customers, and we are the products the tech companies are selling to them.

Social media has aided the growing division in our nation. The use of this media has ratcheted up a young person’s sense of loneliness, isolation, and ultimately, a sense of worthlessness that has wildly increased the percentage of teens and pre-teens suffering from depression and committing suicide (up by as much as 187%). And, bad as that all is, it’s only part of the story.

Some of you reading this will, no doubt, say “well, duh!” But I wonder how many understand to what extent social media plays into the havoc we’re currently experiencing in our lives and the lives of our children, and how much this media is contributing to the breakdown of our democracy.

young boy with smartphone

Like most, I have been painfully aware of the negative impact this media has been having on relationships with friends and family, and have been grieving it. However, I didn’t fully understand the insidious ways social media has undermined us all, not by working poorly, but by working as it was designed to. The documentary, The Social Dilemma, was a giant wake up call. The media’s very designers broke it all down, in great detail.

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor after viewing this film, I reached out to a circle of friends, urged them to watch it, then arranged a virtual group discussion, shortly thereafter. By the end of our talk, we all felt it vital that we broaden the conversation, urge others to watch this film, especially with their families, and to have necessary conversations of their own. This blog is one of my attempts to move that forward.

Please watch this film. Watch it with friends. Watch it with your colleagues, your students. Most of all, watch it with your children. Follow the viewing with a conversation about what surprised you, and what didn’t, what frightened you or gave you pause, and what steps you think you might want to take in response to it.

This is not a call to close your accounts or abandon the media, altogether, although some may. As an author, I’m part of an industry that’s locked into this media, so I see myself altering how I engage with it— and how often—but don’t see myself leaving it entirely, at this point. I do find it telling, though, that the very creators of this media forbid their own children to engage with it. Think about that.

girl mesmerized by screenSome designers suggest demanding legislation that sets controls on the media where there currently are none. Others propose that an age-limit be applied to the use of social media, in much the same way as we put age-limits on drinking, and on driving. After viewing this film, you might find this worth considering. Whether you do or not, this is a clarion call to take a sober account of social media. We all understand what’s good about it, but we need to confront what isn’t. We need to fully comprehend its harmful, and dangerous, impact on our lives, and especially on the lives of our most vulnerable.

I rarely recommend films. It’s even rarer that I recommend a documentary. I have never urged everyone to watch a particular film. I am doing so now.

Please make the time to watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. We all need to understand the mechanisms of this creature we’ve invited into our homes, into our lives, and into our brainstems. What we do with this information is up to each of us.

This one thing I know: knowledge is power.


Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts by Jaron Lanier

The Dangers of Social Media by Paul Otway

Tristan Harris—US Senate June 25, 2019

How a Handful of Tech Companies control Billions of Minds Everyday, TED Talk by Tristan Harris

How Your Brain is Getting HackedTED Talk by Tristan Harris

Your Phone is Trying to Control Your Life, by Tristan Harris, YouTube

Can Truth Survive Big Tech? Tristan Harris, YouTube

High Tech, Low Tech, No Tech?

Posted January 25th, 2019

I bought a new car recently (blame the distracted driver who rear-ended me while I was at a full stop.) My new, certified used car is essentially a computer on wheels—not the replacement car I had in mind. However, of all the used cars the dealer had in stock, this one was in the right price-range. Turns out, all the newish makes and models are loaded with tech.

high-tech car dashboard

The sales person was thrilled to let me know the car was equipped with Bluetooth (what?), could be linked to my cell phone (huh?), and gave me the capability to view films while driving—as if I were honestly interested in splitting my attention between, say, Mission Impossible and the road before me. No. Thanks. As for Bluetooth, I won’t be using that, or most of the other tech goodies available. I find them all too distracting from, you know, Driving. The sales person was especially disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to link my car to my smart phone because—gasp—I don’t have one.

I’m strictly a flip-phone woman. Yes. You read that right. That means I can’t surf the Internet or check my emails every two seconds, but I don’t need to, anyway. Who does? (Well, being able to search for nearby restaurants could come in handy when I’m hungry. Still.) My flip-phone allows me to make and take phone calls, send and receive texts, and access messages. What more do I need? “Apps!” you say. Well, apps might be fun, even useful at times. But necessary? Vital? I don’t think so. Call me crazy, but I actually manage to navigate the world without apps.

My shuttle driver tries to shame me into getting on the smart-phone bandwagon. I’ll ask her something like, “What terminal is my flight leaving from?” Since getting me to the right terminal is part of her job, this is information I expect her to have. Instead of just telling me, however, she launches into, “If you had a smart phone, you could find out yourself, because there’s an app for that.” Really?

I get that the new tech is convenient, but there are a myriad of ways to get the information I need without casting myself off the high-tech bridge and getting caught in the whirlpool of apps, games, and social media connects on-the-go.

I came late to the digital party, kicking and screaming all the way. I’ve found much of it useful as a promotional tool for my business, but I’m also painfully aware of its time-stealing potential. Let’s face it, the Internet is addictive. I waste enough time on social media at home, as it is. Must I now also take it with me on the road? I think not. Beyond the basic cell phone, I don’t need tech that follows me out of the house. Limits must be set.

people using smartphones

What disturbs me most about all the new tech, though, is its negative impact on social interaction. Too often, I’ll walk into a room where two people, seated a few feet apart, are connecting with each other (you can’t really call it communicating) via their devices. The same is true of people on lunch and dinner dates. The parties might as well be seated at separate tables, for all the genuine connection being made. They’re all too busy slavishly checking their phones between bites of food they aren’t taking time enough to fully enjoy. What is the point? What ever happened to conversation? I miss conversation. And eye contact. And having a companion’s full attention. Sigh.

I know a good many people who feel quite overwhelmed by constant waves of new tech lapping at the shore of human imagination. We forget that there are shut-off switches, that no one is holding a gun to our heads forcing us to use the latest app dropped into the digital universe. Those who feel overwhelmed complain that they don’t have enough time for their art, for their spouses, for their children, for—fill in the blank. But if they weren’t constantly plugged into their various devices, playing games, exploring the latest new app, checking email and mindlessly scrolling through social media newsfeeds several times a day, they’d have more of the time they crave. How do I know this? (Behind on a deadline, anyone?) As I’ve already admitted, I’m scrolling right along with the rest of the crowd! It’s a habit I’m determined to break.

High tech, low tech, no tech—whatever we choose, it’s a trade-off. We can choose more convenience and connection, but the cost is less security, and less opportunity for genuine, interpersonal communication. If we choose less convenience and less broad-based, or abbreviated connection, we multiply the time we have for deep personal communication, for mindful living, for art, for greater awareness of our surroundings.

It all comes down to time, the most precious commodity we have. How we use it, and how much of it we have to use, is very much bound up with the choices we make concerning high tech, low tech, or no tech. Take your pick. It really is a choice.

I look up all the time. I notice the clouds dance across the sky, the Magnolia blooms spilling their vanilla scent, the rash of mushrooms following a rain, the hummingbird nuzzling a rose. Do you?