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What Will We Make of Tech? What Will Tech Make of Us?

A slew of new books raises questions about human sociability in the next era of the Internet.

By Nathan Pippenger

A wave of new books about technology—some on its exotic future; others on its pedestrian present—has produced two reviews that make for provocative paired reading.

The first is Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Boston Review essay on three books that provide drastically different perspectives on the future of technology. Standing out for its optimism is Malcolm Gay’s The Brain Electric, which excitedly reports on the progress of “brain-computer interfaces” (BCIs), which “wire” the brain using surgically implanted electrodes. BCIs have clear medical uses (such as for quadriplegic patients), but their advocates hope to develop the technology for everyday use. Imagine a future where our brains can connect directly, O’Geiblyn writes, “with lighting, climate control, vehicles, and the Internet. In this future, communication will be wordless and immediate. Implanted humans will share memories and experiences with other implanted humans without the clumsy machinery of language.”

O’Gieblyn, whose approach to the topic is far more sober, rightly notes that such technology seems fraught with risks and ethical problems: Every problem that now exists online, whether data mining, intrusive advertising, or the blurring line between information and marketing, could easily become far graver when our brain itself is online. But these risks seem to hardly faze either Gay or the people covered in his book; their faith in Technology—not just this technology, but the progressive march of tech itself—consigns all doubters to the category of hopeless Luddites. As O’Gieblyn summarizes the views of Eric Leuthardt, a BCI entrepreneur and a “hero” of the book:

Early adapters are always on the winning side of history; everyone else will join in time. According to this logic, there are no good ideas or bad ideas, only forward-thinking ones. When Leuthardt claims that he wants to connect the brain to a digitized environment “for no other reason than I think it’s amazingly cool,” that’s as good a reason as any.

And so the argument is cast: optimist versus pessimist, or (if you like) booster versus realist. Of course, it’s impossible to know how nascent technologies will be employed decades hence. But maybe this way of framing the question demands too much: why should we need to guess in advance all the ways in which some Internet-immersive technology may or may not benefit us in future circumstances we can’t predict? It’s simpler to merely note how current technology has, despite its sunny promises, come to gradually immiserate today’s users.

That, at least, is the conclusion of Jacob Weisberg’s review of four new books on smartphones and social media. Weisberg approvingly reports the findings of a new book arguing that the “new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships”—stunting our maturation, distracting us from loved ones, undermining our ability to make emotional attachments, generating (ironically) a fear of disconnectedness, worsening our conversation skills, and making us less empathetic.

Many of these complaints are familiar, but what’s striking (aside from the new evidence bolstering them) is how, taken as a group, they suggest that the effect of social media is precisely the opposite of what was advertised: We are less connected, less empathetic, and in many cases less happy. Weisberg employs an apt comparison to describe how social media keeps our business, even as we grow to dislike it: “The designers are applying basic slot machine psychology.” The vague fear of missing some distant acquaintance’s vacation photos, or the momentary dopamine hit of a “like,” catches users in a “closed cycle of anxiety creation and alleviation. What are others doing? What do they think of me? What do I think of them?”

For that reason, it’s not uncommon to see social media users employ the language of “substance abuse, abstention, and recovery.” We seem, Weisberg writes, to be “in the middle of a new Opium War, in which marketers have adopted addiction as an explicit commercial strategy.” The human costs of this technology are unlikely to be captured in a progress-versus-reaction narrative whose victor, per the Silicon Valley utopians, is always known in advance. But we don’t need to wait for the narrative to unfold: we are already living with the drawbacks of constant immersion in the ultra-self-conscious ecosystem of a social Internet. At the moment, connection to that world is only as far away as our phone—meaning it’s hardly ever out of reach. In some ways, it seems already to be inside our heads. Just imagine what will happen when it really is.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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