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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Understanding the age of social media

As Viewpoint section editor I often find myself in the unusual position of asking questions I find myself unable to answer.

I wrote this week’s topic, in large part because I find its implications fascinating and far-reaching, but at the time I hadn’t considered that I might have to scrape together my own thoughts on the matter.

Needless to say, I feel conflicted. I can’t imagine living in this world without around-the-clock access to the Internet and everything that entails—social media, information, entertainment, news, email, and so forth. But the fact that I cannot imagine a world without digital technology says little about the effects, good or bad, of these technologies, and much about the mere presence of effects.

I am sure I would be less anxious if I didn’t have the Internet in my pocket at all waking hours of the day. I am sure I would feel better if I didn’t receive a new email every ten minutes and feel the need to respond immediately.

I am sure as well that I would feel safer if I could use my school’s own Google account for all my college work without knowing, somewhere in a backwards recess of my mind, that a company in Mountain View knows more about me than I do myself.

But on the other hand, I don’t know that it’s possible for me to imagine a world without these technologies. Not because I haven’t lived in that world—iPhones didn’t exist for almost half my life—but because we treat them as such an integral part of our daily interactions.

There seems to be no going back for the world. I’ve created an unanswerable question for myself. I shouldn’t have asked, is it worth the consequences, but rather: what those consequences are.

A few minutes before I sat down to write this article I was talking with some friends about the prompt. One of them raised the question of whether Facebook was worth more or less than a single human life. We were all disturbed—I don’t think anyone could argue that a faceless corporate technology is more valuable than a living person—but equally disturbing for me was the possibility that technologies like Facebook are now so ingrained in our society that their presence does protect lives. We, in an ultimate concession to capitalism, depend on them to do more efficiently what humans have done for millennia.

It’s true that components like Facebook Safety Check or Google Maps or Find My Friends probably do save lives on a fairly regular basis. But to my mind that doesn’t mean that they, as companies, as applications, are worth their consequences. We treat the connections and data the Internet provides as private goods into which corporations, given enough outside investment, hype, and ruthlessness, can tap and from which we can draw benefits.

Often these benefits are free, at least ostensibly. But the social cost of information technology is tremendous. I don’t want to rehash the dated argument that if kids these days would just get off Tweetbookchatagram for one minute a day then we could have dinner as a family again, the way we used to. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to a world without these technologies, I’m not sure such a world is possible, and I’m also not convinced they’re the chief (or only) problem in the first place.

Still, there is something to be said for digital technologies intensifying stressors that have always been present in our lives. The twenty-four hour news cycle doesn’t only live on the TV anymore: it’s also in your pocket, along with your friends, your boss, and your public image. It’s difficult to check out from the world around you when the allure of everything and everyone you care about is only a tap away.

My mental illness predates many of these developments; I won’t blame them for it at all. What I will say is I think coping with it would be a lot easier for me if I didn’t have the constant reminder of a world out there. Often, late at night, when I have no work to do and no energy to interact with other people but am too awake to go to sleep, I stare at my phone for minutes, hours even, simply to have something to do.

I don’t do this because I enjoy it; it’s usually tedious and uninteresting, to be honest. But it gives me something onto which I can fix my attention that at once prevents my rumination and encourages it. The few nights when I turn my phone off early and read instead I feel much better, but that takes effort that I don’t always have.

This effort, I think, is the central problem of technology. We require so little to begin probing its depths that we forget how deep we can go, so we end up in bottomless pits of information we didn’t want instead of contenting ourselves with just a little. But going back is nearly impossible. I can never delete my Facebook. Without it I couldn’t stay in contact with all the people I know from high school, from college; all the events that happen every day that I would never hear about; all the jokes and memes; and of course the news.

We want the benefits of social media because we’re hardwired to want connection and information and entertainment. For these reasons I don’t think it’s possible to go back. The allure is too strong. Instead, we ought to consider how we can make the Internet a hospitable place for us to access. We ought to think more seriously about strictly regulating the corporations and news outlets that as of now allow unfettered bigotry, misinformation, and intrusive datamining to run rampant. If we cannot return to a world without the Internet, let’s at least make it a place where we all can live comfortably.

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