Is Big Tech “downgrading humanity”? So says former Googler and podcaster Tristan (rhymes with “twist-on”) Harris, director of the weirdly named Center for Humane Technology. Mr. Harris and many of his fellow tech skeptics describe humans as little different from pets, believing everyone who uses
or an iPhone is a manipulatable idiot. He couldn’t be more wrong.
Mr. Harris preaches about an “attention crisis.” OK, you have my attention. Testifying before the Senate last year, he said tech companies are in a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” He also claimed humans in the 21st century still have “Paleolithic emotions.” Basically, “we’re chimpanzees with nukes.” Wait, did he just call you a chimp?
Elsewhere he has claimed that social networks are delivering “outrage that works on the piano key of your nervous system.” The man can certainly turn a phrase. He explains that “technology is getting better and better at hacking human weaknesses.” And you’d better put down that glass, because “we’re drinking from the Flint water supply of information.”
Mr. Harris’s most fevered claim is that social media has taken over politics. “We’re not really in control of world history anymore,” he says. “The technology companies that are shaping our information sense-making environment are in control of every major electoral outcome, and whether people believe conspiracy theories.” And there it is. It isn’t
fault she lost in 2016. It was maybe the Russians and certainly Big Bad Tech. Mr. Harris insists “one side is currently winning by there not being regulation.” You can probably guess which one he means.
Mr. Harris believes “we’ve been manipulated into this multiyear-long hypnotic trance,” and that “we need someone to snap their fingers and wake all of us up out of this.” A savior, a messiah. Might that someone be Mr. Harris?
Alarmism can be a lucrative business. In 2018 Mr. Harris received funding from
He also has a deal with the brother of climate scold
to spend $7 million and use $50 million of donated media from
and DirecTV, which have their own bone to pick with Big Tech. Maybe that’s why Mr. Harris insists that “human downgrading is the climate change of culture.” Uh boy.
Last month Mr. Harris asked Congress to launch a massive public-awareness campaign—“an inoculation campaign,” similar to those run in the 1940s by the Committee for National Morale and the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. I’m not kidding.
Every generation goes through tremors when something new arrives. Elvis’s hips. Pinball. TV. Rock ’n’ roll. Videogames. For the most part, everyone turned out OK. Sure, we’ve all gone down the rabbit hole of hyperlinks and insect-fighting videos. So what? We’re bored.
Mr. Harris is right to say we “need to upgrade human capacity,” but the question is how. Social media, which he would kneecap through regulations like banning microtargeted ads, is actually doing that upgrading: training the next generation of knowledge workers, teaching them how to multitask, think in several dimensions, click and swipe their way to information, and find knowledge and solutions in a noisy world. Free 21st-century training.
Most important, users of today’s media platforms are getting used to identifying fake news. Sorry, but people aren’t stupid. Our internal defenses against deceit and bias go up when inundated and irradiated with nonsense.
News flash: There are charlatans and hucksters in the real world—in “meat space”—too. President Trump used a sharpie to fudge hurricane paths.
blamed a video for the murders in Benghazi, Libya. The
recently said “mourners” stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iraq last year, much as “students” took over the U.E. Embassy in Iran in 1978. There are free-trade agreements that aren’t free. And if you like your doctor . . .
Yes, those under 16 need to limit their use of technology as their brains develop, but not cold turkey. Isn’t that the job of parents rather than government or nonprofits? Remember when movies and TV were damaging our minds? Me neither. If anything, traditional media drives conformity, whereas social networks at least allow freedom of expression. Somehow that’s now inhumane?
The cries of Mr. Harris and other aggravated social-media critics sound like demands to turn back the clock to simpler times. But there’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. Only fools will try. For all its flaws, social networks and artificial intelligence keep delivering value and utility to users, training people for a world that moves in nanoseconds. Better to teach the next generation how to keep up. That’s humane.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8