What Is Technology Doing to Human Nature?

Are there some technological developments that threaten to undermine a flourishing human life, and what can we do about it? Answers excerpted from a symposium hosted by the College’s McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute and the Acton Institute.

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On the Knowledge Problem

Moderator: Do we have enough knowledge to understand what technology is doing to us?

C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man talks about the knowledge problem: his fear for the future of technology is that fewer and fewer men will have power over billions of men. It’s the idea that the average man or woman doesn’t know how the background works in technology. Many people didn’t know Facebook was data-mining us. How do we know what technology is doing to us? Is there even a way to know, if we don’t have insider technological knowledge?

It’s going to take a lot of work to close the digital literacy gap

There have always been power dynamics and struggles in human history and there’s never going to be a point at which we’re all equal. If you really think that’s where you want to head, I don’t think you’ve considered that future in which we’re all equal and the same—gray.

There’s parts of this that are good and bad. If you head back to the beginning days of the printing press, for example, if all of us on the panel were literate, and you all were not, we could pass notes with each other. If you came up and saw our note, you wouldn’t be able to read it. We’re in a new age with that right now with digital literacy. I do believe that gap will be spanned. Because of the Internet and the way communications drive information nowadays we can speed this up, but it is going to take a lot of work.

I think that’s also why we need protections within the government right now. Not strict regulations—freedom of speech issues are really hard to govern. If that’s put into law, then anyone who’s in control can flip those switches. There are really sensitive issues here. What they [lawmakers] are trying to do is technically implant subjective issues of life that are just not defined by a binary code. Longer term, it’s a much deeper conversation, and I think it does start with having technology literacy in youth curriculum and foundations all the way through. It’s going to take a long time for us to really meaningfully figure this stuff out, and until then, I just think there needs to be some protections.

Data isn’t the same as wisdom, but it can help us pay attention

The knowledge problem is traditionally understood on a hierarchy of information or data, knowledge, and  wisdom. The problem was addressed in 1947 by T.S. Eliot in poetry when he said, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Now it’s all being lost by data, these data points. So the bad news is the wisdom is disappearing. The good news is we do have enough data now to quantify all these questions and answer them very specifically.

Here’s an example: the car, we thought, was going to kill us all. That turns out not to be true. But the government tracks how many people die in car crashes every year. In 2017, that was 40,000 people. How many of those in another study are killed by their cell phone by distracted driving? It’s a seriously quantifiable problem. There are three types of distraction: visual distraction, where your eyes aren’t on the road; manual distraction, where your hand isn’t on the wheel; and mental distraction, where your mind isn’t on driving. The smartphone represents all three of those distractions. The answer is 23% of all car crashes are caused by distracted driving. The number one cause of distracted driving is the smartphone. That means 9,200 people died in 2017 because of a new technology. Without the technology, the number would have been 31,000 and change.

So now think about it in terms of Steve Jobs’s 2007 speech where he said, “I am going to introduce to you three new devices today: the world’s best music player, the world’s best cell phone, and the world’s best Internet connection device.” The punch-line of that great presentation of the iPhone was that, for the first time, it was one device, and all three things were in one thing. And everybody gasped. It was amazing. What if you had said, “There is just one downside. It’ll kill about 10,000 Americans a year”? People would have thought, “This guy’s a psychopath, this guy’s crazy. This is illegal, this is immoral, this is horrible.” When you look at the actual ecological effect, it’s massively quantifiable.

We know that it’s complicated, but we’re very rapidly coming to the place where we can quantify how many suicides are caused by the Internet-connected smart phone. Once that’s happened, and that’s something I’m doing in some of my research, you’re going to realize. “Oh, there’s percent chances more of me hating myself, of me wanting to kill myself, of me wanting to do harm” because of this stuff. Yes, humanity’s the same, but these accumulative effects really are changing the nature of the ecosystem we live in, and that’s why we have to pay attention. It takes a lot of knowledge and wisdom to disentangle what are all these causes. It’s not just “technology=bad.” It’s the accumulated, historical effects of multiple technologies.

As I say to my students, if you’re not depressed right now, you’re probably not paying attention. When you look at the actual depression rates, and the anxiety rates, and who’s the happiest—who’s thriving in growing their society and in passing on their religious beliefs to their future—do you know who it is worldwide? If you’re a Protestant, you have like a 30-40% retention rate. That means if you were raised Presbyterian, there’s a 40% likelihood that you’ll raise your children Presbyterian. Catholics have a higher retention rate; Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists have higher retention rates than that, in the 60s-70s. You know what the highest retention rate is ever? It’s the one group that actually continues to answer the question about technology: the Amish. They have a 95% retention rate. They’re doubling their numbers every 20 years and they’re flourishing and thriving. But you don’t hear about them. Why? Because they’re not on Instagram, they’re not advertising it. This is how the meek inherit the earth. They’re just quietly doing their thing: marrying at 16, having 12 kids, and taking over. It’s not that you need to become Amish; it’s that you need to become as shrewd as the Amish.

On Instilling Virtue into Corporations

Moderator: Who is responsible for making technology corporations act responsibly?

Where should the virtue come from? Jacques Ellul gave an example of the dam: if you build a dam, and 20 years down the road it fails, who do you blame? You have engineers, you have people who move the water. You have all kinds of hands in building technologies. We’re seeing that right now with Zuckerberg in front of Congress. Should we trust Facebook and Google? Does regulation come through the government? This seems to be where the rub is.

We should start seeing our social data as our property, not companies’

I am in favor of “data as property.” “Data as property” exists in terms of other frameworks: medical information, financial information. When it comes to your social information, there has to be some form of framework that what you put into the system is yours. You’re using a service to enhance your ability to work in the real world. Right now, the contract between you and Google or Facebook or Twitter is that the data you put in is their property because you would never have that data to begin with. We know that’s not true. You probably wouldn’t have 300 friends on Facebook; you would probably have half of that list. Facebook has augmented that to allow you to access some of those people again, but it’s not like they were responsible. That’s where I think that the contract could be a healthy change. The one company that is actually pushing that direction is Apple. Apple has been releasing more new products that basically have been breaking that cycle. The single sign-in Apple technology alone was a huge shockwave through the Internet.

When businesses make Terms of Service agreements clearer, it benefits everyone

We’ve created this culture of learned helplessness. These massive corporations have essentially put on an invisible shock collar on the communities. We don’t really know our boundaries; we don’t really know exactly what’s happening. When we hit our boundary, it creates this fear. We never want to pass those boundaries again. We end up censoring ourselves and our communities.

Yes, there are companies that listen [to our private conversations]. We consent to most of this whether you realize you’re consenting to this or not. But data can be acquired in other manners. Maybe Facebook’s actually not listening to you. Maybe it’s some other small company from some random app that you downloaded, didn’t read the agreement, and it’s listening to you, and the data gets resold in the marketplace. That is common, and that’s why I believe we need fundamental data rights to protect how information can be used, shared, stored, etc.

For example, right now we are working on software with a big company that does a lot of marketing, digital governance. We’re going to redesign the way that you give consent. Obviously, this isn’t something that is going to happen overnight. We’re taking the first steps to make it so that Terms of Service agreements are accessible, educational, and empowering. How do we not have to create separate tech literacy programs? Why don’t we just engage the consumer at the moment they have to do it and teach them in the interactions with the machine? So we’re working on more of the business level.

We believe that the best way to change these things is through business action. You can go to the government and it’s going to take them a decade or two to correct their actions, with all of the process and the bureaucracies. You can go to the communities and get them to change their ways. We need that, as well, but that’s going to take decades. The quickest way to do this is to put it to the business front and to put it in a framework that meets business language. We go into companies and we talk to them about these issues and say here’s the numbers on how you can actually give what we’re calling positive-sum outcomes. It’s not just a zero-sum game where you win or they win. We’re creating positive-sum experiences where the company can continue to move forward, stop sprinting while they’re looking at their shoe strings, and instead, look up, and begin to imagine a different future.

On Digital Conversation

Audience: How do you think about constructive conversation on the Internet?

Help me understand how you think about constructive conversation on the Internet. And what do you think about what I like to refer to as disposable chatter: quick sound bites happening across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram?

Constructive dialogue can’t happen online

If you want to have a constructive dialogue it can’t occur on the digital platform, like websites, comments, whatever. The type or part of communication that’s actually being delivered to you through this screen is literally the lowest-valuable part of the communication. You lose so much when you go online. I do nothing online in terms of conversations with other people. For my friends, I call all of them. When someone calls you and it’s not planned, you’re like, “Uh.” You just have to get over that and realize it’s okay if someone randomly calls you. It’s probably not an emergency. In my community group, we all call each other because we all travel a lot. We say, “Just calling to say I love you, I’m praying for you.”

Use your disembodied means of communication as a means to embodiment

When you’re sick in the hospital and you get a notification that there’s a Facebook group praying for you, that feels good. When you get a card that physically shows up in the hospital room, that feels better. When you get flowers, that feels even nicer. And when you reach out and there’s the hand of Mom, you know she actually loves you the most of all those people. It’s not that they’re not real. It’s that they’re not willing to actually take time out of their schedule and come to visit you in the hospital room. Embodiment is everything.

Use your disembodied means of communication as a means to embodiment. Instead of texting, call; instead of calling, embrace. Give each other a high-five or a hug today. Because that’s going to be one of 25 physical points of contact you get with another human today, whereas your cell phone is going to be pinched, touched, turned on, off, swiped 2,500 times today. Emotionally, everybody wishes they were a cell phone. Nobody gets that kind of love. If you loved each other the way you loved your cell phone, you’d all feel like rockstars.

My son is now an RA in his dorm. He has a wicker basket that people put their cell phones into when they come into his room to talk, and he makes the room an embodiment zone. The guys on the floor love it. Just those little acts of resistance that encourage embodiment. Make an agreement with your friends. We put our phones face-down when we have lunch and we never pick them up. Little things like that are hugely significant in terms of who you know your real friends are, who really love you.

Stand behind the change you want to make in your industry

I think with anything you guys do, especially journalism, the biggest thing in creating this future that you want to see is that you need to walk the walk. You’re going to have bosses that want certain things out of you. If you want to make change, you have to stand behind the change you want to make. That’s the tough decision that you’re going to have to make at some point in your career. I write for Forbes—huge impact opportunity, I get it —but sometimes you need to break away, make the message that you want to make. Then those bigger entities often look and see cultural movements and attach on to those and then maybe you come back in. I left the company [Google] because I believe the best way to make change is to go outside of it, create something else that they see value in, and then bring it back. Maybe the best way to make an impact is not by doing the traditional route that you’re always told is the best. Be creative.

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