I have come to think the same of today’s technologists: Their problem is that they don’t take technology seriously enough. They refuse to see how it is changing us or even how it is changing them.
It’s been revealing watching Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of the browsers Mosaic and Netscape and of A16Z, a venture capital firm, incessantly tweet memes about how everyone online is obsessed with “the current thing.” Andreessen sits on the board of Meta and his firm dele is helping finance Elon Musk’s proposed acquisition of Twitter. He is central to the media platforms that algorithmically obsess the world with the same small collection of topics and have flattened the frictions of place and time that, in past eras, made the news in Omaha markedly different from the news in Ojai. He and his firm dele have been relentless in hyping crypto, which turns the “current thing” dynamics of the social web into frothing, speculative asset markets.
Behind his argument is a view of human nature, and how it does, or doesn’t, interact with technology. In an interview with Tyler Cowen, Andreessen suggests that Twitter is like “a giant X-ray machine”:
You’ve got this phenomenon, which is just fascinatingwhere you have all of these public figures, all of these people in positions of authority — in a lot of cases, great authority —the leading legal theorists of our time, leading politicians, all these businesspeople. And they tweet, and all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh, that’s who you actually are.”
But is it? I don’t even think this is true for Andreessen, who strikes me as very different off Twitter than on. There is no stable, unchanging self. People are capable of cruelty and altruism, farsightedness and myopia. We are who we are, in this moment, in this context, mediated in these ways. It is an abdication of responsibility for technologists to pretend that the technologies they make have no say in who we become. Where he sees an X-ray, I see a mold.
Over the past decade, the narrative has turned against Silicon Valley. Puff pieces have become hit jobs, and the visionaries inventing our future have been recast as the Machiavellians undermining our present. My frustration with these narratives, both then and now, is that they focus on people and companies, not technologies. I suspect that is because American culture remains deeply uncomfortable with technological criticism. There is something akin to an immune system against it: You get called a Luddite, an alarmist. “In this sense, all Americans are Marxists,” Postman wrote, “for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.”
I think that’s true, but it coexists with an opposite truth: Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That’s one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use. That conversation, on some level, demands value judgments. This was on my mind recently, when I heard Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who’s been collecting data on how social media harms teenagers, say, bluntly, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”
What struck me about Haidt’s comment is how rarely I hear anything structured that way. He’s arguing three things. First, that the way Instagram works is changing how teenagers think. It is supercharging their need for approval of how they look and what they say and what they’re doing, making it both always available and never enough. Second, that it is the fault of the platform — that it is intrinsic to how Instagram is designed, not just to how it is used. And third, that it’s bad. That even if many people use it and enjoy it and make it through the gantlet just fine, it’s still bad. It is a mold we should not want our children to pass through.