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Standing Up to Technology

In the fall of 2016, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that pushed back against the conventional wisdom that social media was important for your career. “In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable,” I wrote. “Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable.” Aided in large part by an attention-catching headline — “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It” — my piece touched a nerve, soon hitting the top of the paper’s Most Emailed chart.

This sudden prominence generated a fierce backlash. I was invited on a radio program only to be ambushed by two surprise guests invited to refute my ideas. A well-known communication professor began emailing me invitations to debate. One online publication described my call to use less social media as a call to disenfranchise marginalized peoples. (I’m still trying to figure that one out.) Perhaps most notably, two weeks later, the Times took the unusual step of publishing a response op-ed — “Don’t Quit Social Media. Put it to Work for Your Career Instead” — that went through the main points of my piece one by one, explain why each was wrong.

In my most recent essay for The New Yorker, published earlier today, I revisit this incident from seven years ago. As I write, my distinct impression of this period was that of being targeted by a cultural immune reaction: “The idea of stepping away altogether from powerful new tools like social media just wasn’t acceptable; readers needed to be assured that such advice could be safely ignored.”

In 2016, American culture was gripped by what the late social critic Neil Postman called a “technopoly”; a social order in which we fully capitulate to the technological:

“[In a technopoly] innovation and increased efficiency become the unchallenged mechanisms of progress, while any doubts about the imperative to accommodate the shiny and new are marginalized. ‘Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World,’ Postman writes. ‘It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.’ Technopoly, he concludes, ‘is totalitarian technocracy.'”

This was the setting in which my call to cut back on social media was so thoroughly and immediately rejected. It represented a glitch in the technopolic matrix that needed immediate repair.

The goal of my new essay, however, was not mere negative nostalgia. It goes on to highlight a more recent positive trend that has been largely overlooked: the age of technopoly seems to be ending. Increasingly we see resistance to the blind acceptance of all technological progress as inevitable, whether this be in the form of the Writers Guild of America banning certain uses of artificial intelligence in the creation of television shows, or the Surgeon General suggesting that maybe we should just stop letting kids use social media.

I recommend that you read the full essay for specific details, but my general conclusion is that a new, more critical engagement with tools that I call techno-selectionism is becoming more viable. As 2023 rapidly gives way to 2024, maybe we’ll see this new philosophy really began to spread. I’ll be doing my part to help it along.

9 thoughts on “Standing Up to Technology”

  1. The Amish are actually not anti-technology, but techno-selectionists, applying the same human-centered harm/benefit analysis you’re describing.

    • I’m fairly certain Cal references the Amish at some length in the Digital Minimalism book. It’s a worthwhile read if you haven’t already!

  2. I hope that’s true! Anecdotally, I have found that compared to when I first read Digital Minimalism in 2018, it is far more of socially acceptable and even trendy to criticize and take breaks from social media. I think this is good. Considering how much Digital Minimalism improved my life, it can only be a good thing for its core ideas to be spreading!

    I would love to see more discussions from big publications about how to go about “techno-selectionism” like you did back in DM. I found that a lot of the value I extracted from the book was in the guidance around choosing how to use technology based on first principles of what I wanted my life to look like: “de-cluttering” rather than just “de-toxing”.

  3. The problem may relate to a long term bias that was nurtured in the west during the 20th century, where corporations developed the “next big things” and sold them to us. In this cultural setting, we accepted the role of passive recipients of value or “consumers” rather than active problem solvers and value creators. Tech could provide us with tools to help us do better, but we lack the skills to use them for those purposes, and do not demand these types of tools. We could transcend this. The first step is to embrace more efficient modes of connecting with people to add value based on “Backward thinking” rather than “forward thinking.”

  4. Not related to the current post, but just as a recommendation for you, Cal, and for other readers, here’s a nicely argued article that touches on several issues found in your books.

    Interesting points:
    – a pedagogical graphical representation of how an interruption kills productivity
    – the idea of how “scheduled distractions may be worse than unscheduled ones. If you know you have a meeting in an hour, you don’t even start working on something hard.”

  5. I am just now starting to read your work, but whole heartedly agree. For most people social media is a waste of time, myself included. I walked away from social media about 4 years ago and never went back. As a software engineer I am always around web apps and technology is what keeps me employed, but nowadays we really need to take a step back and really ask ourselves if the tools or apps in our lives are really worth it, do they bring joy, help us attain a goal, produce monetary gain, or fill some void of loneliness. As I start the new year I am self reflecting on the many distractions that constrict my productivity. Glad to have gone down this rabbit hole.


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