Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote his version of the “Gospel According to Mark.” He covered about every inch of digital optimism in a 6,000 word post. Social media will usher in nothing less than Utopia on Earth. Facebook can “bring people together,” a phrase used repeatedly in the piece. Used at full capacity, Facebook can unite communities, strengthen the democratic process, put away the dishes, clean up after our pets, and raise our children.
Reading this manifesto made me realize that my real beef is not with technology, but with the worship of technology. It’s a tool, not our salvation.
Zuckerberg laments the trend of people broadcasting their suicides on Facebook Live. His solution is digital– Artificial Intelligence could help detect warning signs. Nevermind the studies that show a correlation between Facebook use and depression.
The Gospel of Mark praises the increased ability for civic engagement, yet fails to recognize the limitations of online movements, which are more likely to foment outrage over a zoo animal than to get out the vote. Name your hashtag movement de jour. We have witnessed, over and over, the failures of leaderless online movements to secure social change. In American democracy, the only success you can attribute to social media is the campaign of Donald Trump. Thanks, Mark.
Technology now claims territory in every facet of human experience, for better or worse. I have to grant its constructive uses.
The other day in class we were doing a project on WWI. Students could pick any topic related to the war. The task was to research and write a newspaper article. Teams would then combine articles to form a complete newspaper. One team got especially engaged in their work. An interest in war strategy found one student clicking through an interactive map of Europe. His observations led his teammate to start reading personal letters written by soldiers, trying to compare the experience fighting in the trenches to the experience serving on a boat. As they pondered and wrote, the answers to their questions could be found instantly. It created a sort of historical immersion.
A computer with an internet source is a powerful tool. I can’t deny that.
Likewise, we are able to connect at an incredible level. Our maps know where we are. We can read reviews before we buy. We can rent out our living spaces to strangers and hail a car ride with a click of a button. The opportunities embedded within these tools are profound.
It’s not hard to understand why people can look at the digital age and see Light. But it does not transform the human condition. If you forget that, just start reading ‘comments’ sections on articles.
Every technological advancement comes with a tradeoff. And each digital tool has different social effects. We cannot praise ease of communication without questioning the quality of our communication and paying attention to the effects of ubiquitous use.
Let’s not fool ourselves. Zuckerberg answers to his shareholders. He benefits if the “global community” uses his product obsessively, even if this causes damage to real communities, real democracies, real lives. His image of society is radical and misguided.
That’s why real education is so important. Tech consumption, ‘cuz it’s there, will birth a passive generation of crowd followers and people pleasers. Algorithms can never replace interpersonal connection.
Discriminate use of these awesome tools can indeed advance the human cause. Toward this end, researchers need to continue evaluating the effects of our tech habits. Educators and parents need to make purposeful, informed decisions on how to mentor in this new frontier.