In the spring of 1669 a “flying coach” transported six passengers from Oxford to London in a single day. Within a few years similar carriage services connected many major towns to the capital.
“As usual,” Lord Macaulay wrote in his history of England, “many persons” were “disposed to clamour against the innovation, simply because it was an innovation.” They objected that the express rides would corrupt traditional horsemanship, throw saddlers and boatmen out of work, bankrupt the roadside taverns, and force travelers to sit with children and the disabled. “It was gravely recommended,” reported Macaulay, by various towns and companies, that “no public coach should be permitted to have more than four horses, to start oftener that once a week, or to go more than thirty miles a day.”
Macaulay used the episode to offer his contemporaries a warning. Although “we smile at these things,” he said, “our descendants, when they read the history of the opposition offered by cupidity and prejudice to the improvements of the nineteenth century, may smile in their turn.” Macaulay wanted the smart set to take a wider view of history.
They rarely do. It is not in their nature. As Schumpeter understood, the “intellectual group” cannot help attacking “the foundations of capitalist society.” “It lives on criticism and its whole position depends on criticism that stings.”
An aspiring intellectual would do well to avoid restraint or good cheer. Better to build on a foundation of panic and indignation. Want to sell books and appear on television? Announce the “death” of this or a “crisis” over that. Want to seem fashionable among other writers, artists, and academics? Denounce greed and rail against “the system.”
New technology is always a good target. When a lantern inventor obtained a patent to light London, observed Macaulay, “the cause of darkness was not left undefended.” The learned technophobes have been especially vexed lately. The largest tech companies, they protest, are manipulating us.
Apple is no better. “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” asks The Atlantic in a cover-story headline. The article’s author, Jean Twenge, says smartphones have made the young less independent, more reclusive, and more depressed. She claims that today’s teens are “on the brink of the worst mental-health”—wait for it—“crisis in decades.” “Much of this deterioration,” she contends, “can be traced to their phones.”
And then there’s Amazon. It’s too efficient. Alex Salkever worries in Fortune that “too many clicks, too much time spent, and too much money spent on Amazon” is “bad for our collective financial, psychological, and physical health.”
Here’s a rule of thumb for the refined cultural critic to ponder. When the talking points you use to convey your depth and perspicacity match those of a sermonizing Republican senator, start worrying that your pseudo-profound TED-Talk-y concerns for social justice are actually just fusty get-off-my-lawn fears of novelty and change.
Enter Josh Hawley, freshman GOP senator from Missouri. Hawley claims that Facebook is a “digital drug” that “dulls” attention spans and “frays” relationships. He speculates about whether social media is causing teenage girls to attempt suicide. “What passes for innovation by Big Tech today,” he insists, is “ever more sophisticated exploitation of people.” He scolds the tech companies for failing to produce products that—in his judgment—“enrich lives” and “strengthen society.”
As for the stuff the industry does make, Hawley wants it changed. He has introduced a bill to ban infinite scrolling, music and video autoplay, and the use of “badges and other awards” (gamification) on social media. The bill also requires defaults that limit a user’s time on a platform to 30 minutes a day. A user could opt out of this restriction, but only for a month at a stretch.
The available evidence does not bear out the notion that highbrow magazines, let alone Josh Hawley, should redesign tech products and police how people use their time. You’d probably have to pay someone around $500 to stay off Facebook for a year. Getting her to forego using Amazon would cost even more. And Google is worth more still—perhaps thousands of dollars per user per year. These figures are of course quite rough, but that just proves the point: the consumer surplus created by the internet is inestimable.
Is technology making teenagers sad? Probably not. A recent study tracked the social-media use, along with the wellbeing, of around ten-thousand British children for almost a decade. “In more than half of the thousands of statistical models we tested,” the study’s authors write, “we found nothing more than random statistical noise.” Although there were some small links between teenage girls’ mood and their social-media use, the connections were “miniscule” and too “trivial” to “inform personal parenting decisions.” “It’s probably best,” the researchers conclude, “to retire the idea that the amount of time teens spend on social media is a meaningful metric influencing their wellbeing.”
One could head the other way, in fact, and argue that technology is making children smarter. Surfing the web and playing video games might broaden their attention spans and improve their abstract thinking.
Is Facebook a threat to democracy? Not yet. The memes that Russian trolls distributed during the 2016 election were clumsy, garish, illiterate piffle. Most of it was the kind of thing that only an Alex Jones fan or a QAnon conspiracist would take seriously. And sure enough, one study finds that only a tiny fraction of voters, most of them older conservatives, read and spread the material. It appears, in other words, that the Russian fake news and propaganda just bounced around among a few wingnuts whose support for Donald Trump was never in doubt.
Over time, it is fair to say, the known costs and benefits of the latest technological innovations could change. New data and further study might reveal that the handwringers are on to something. But there’s good news: if you have fears, doubts, or objections, nothing stops you from acting on them. If you believe that Facebook’s behavior is intolerable, or that its impact on society is malign, stop using it. If you think Amazon is undermining small businesses, shop more at local stores. If you fret about your kid’s screen time, don’t give her a smartphone. Indeed, if you suspect that everything has gone pear-shaped since the Industrial Revolution started, throw out your refrigerator and stop going to the dentist.
We now hit the crux of the intellectuals’ (and Josh Hawley’s) complaint. It’s not a gripe about Big Tech so much as a gripe about you. You, the average person, are too dim, weak, and base. You lack the wits to use an iPhone on your own terms. You lack the self-control to post, “like”, and share in moderation (or the discipline to make your children follow suit). You lack the virtue to abstain from the pleasures of Prime-membership consumerism.
One AI researcher digs to the root. “It is only the hyper-privileged who are now saying, ‘I’m not going to give my kids this,’ or ‘I’m not on social media,’” she tells Vox. No one wields the “privilege” epithet quite like the modern privileged do. It is one of the remarkable features of our time. Pundits and professors use the word to announce, albeit unintentionally, that only they and their peers have any agency. Those other people, meanwhile, need protection from too much information, too much choice, too much freedom.
There’s nothing crazy about wanting the new aristocrats of the mind to shepherd everyone else. Noblesse oblige is a venerable concept. The lords care for the peasants, the king cares for the lords, God cares for the king. But that is not our arrangement. Our forebears embraced the Enlightenment. They began with the assumption that citizens are autonomous. They got suspicious whenever the holders of political power started trying to tell those citizens what they can and cannot do.
Algorithms might one day expose, and play on, our innate lack of free will so much that serious legal and societal adjustments are needed. That, however, is a remote and hypothetical issue, one likely to fall on a generation, yet unborn, who will smile in their turn at our qualms. (Before you place much weight on more dramatic predictions, consider that the great Herbert Simon asserted, in 1965, that we’d have general AI by 1985.)
The question today is more mundane: do voters crave moral direction from their betters? Are they clamoring to be viewed as lowly creatures who can hardly be relied on to tie their shoes? If so, they’re perfectly capable of debasing themselves accordingly through their choice of political representatives. Judging from Congress’s flat response to Hawley’s bill, the electorate is not quite there yet.
In the meantime, the great and the good might reevaluate their campaign to infantilize their less fortunate brothers and sisters. Lecturing people about how helpless they are is not deep. It’s not cool. It’s condescending and demeaning. It’s a form of trolling. Above all, it’s old-fashioned and priggish.
In 1816 The Times of London warned “every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion” as . . . the waltz. “The novelty is one deserving of severe reprobation,” Britain’s paper of record intoned, “and we trust it will never again be tolerated in any moral English society.”
There was a time, Lord Macaulay felt sure, when some brahmin or other looked down his nose at the plough and the alphabet.