Nigel Cameron

Nigel Cameron writes about technology, society, and the future. In 2007 he founded the Washington think tank The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His most recent book is Will Robots Take Your Job?

April 3, 2018

We take our smartphones for granted, as they effortlessly deliver computing power that is – astonishingly – already far greater than the “super-computers” of a generation back. With barely a second thought we share personal news and opinion and photos with networks of friends and followers. At the same time, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal has forcefully reminded us, we share troves of highly personal data with companies like Facebook, who pay their bills and make vast profits by harvesting that data and selling it.

We take our smartphones for granted (I know I do). Yet we also know that the extraordinary convenience they bring to our busy lives – from real-time public transport info to restaurant reviews to photos of our children to chat with loved ones – can come at a social cost.

The couple on a date who peek at their phones while the partner isn’t looking. The families who gather for dinner, yet each member distracted by a buzz and a screen. The business meetings in which no-one is ever sure of anyone else’s attention. The people who walk across busy roads fixated on a screen. And, of course, “cell yell,” as it has been called – less prevalent now, though far from extinct. Otherwise thoughtful people whose shouted conversations dominate railway carriages and restaurants and airport lounges. The teenagers whose lives seem to revolve around the latest social buzz. And adults also are the victims of “FOMO” – “fear of missing out”. It’s a long list, and we could all make one of our own.

Houston, we have a problem

I’m wary of the pseudo-medical term “addiction” but we all know it can be hard to put these intrusive things in their place. We also know that the mega-companies who run the services we use know that too. Indeed, it’s at the core of their business model. They need our eyeballs, and they need them as much of the time as they can get them.

We’ve all heard the saying that “if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” Social media and search and other internet-based efforts are enormously profitable for this single reason: you hand over vast quantities of information, so they know a lot about you; and they use what they know to advertise to you. We’ve always had ad-supported businesses – such as newspapers, where the price only covers part of the cost, and ads cover the rest; and commercial television.

But there’s a reason why advertisers have been placing 98% of new online business with Facebook and Google rather than, say, The Times or USA Today. The tech platforms can offer precise targeting that conventional publishers cannot match and they can only deliver that precision because they know an awful lot about you. For example, if you ask Facebook to send you everything they have on you – something a good number of people have been doing in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations – they are obliged to do so. It will typically run to more than 1,000 pages. Maybe you didn’t think your life was all that interesting but it is to Facebook and Google – because of what it means they can offer to the world’s other big businesses.

Is there a solution?

Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t just put the clock back – and un-invent the internet, un-invent GPS, un-invent all the other key components that enable our smartphones and leave us with this dilemma.

If there is a solution, it lies in critical thinking. About the business models of the companies whose products and services we engage. About the regulatory environments in which they should operate. And, critically, about how we use our own mobile devices. In our families, in our businesses, and in our personal lives.

That’s the spirit of this UnHerd Deep Dive.

Connections

As we criticise social media, it’s worth recalling how much personal and professional benefit we have received from it. If I review the contributors to this Deep Dive, I am reminded that, of our seven contributors/subjects, I first met two through Twitter and two through Facebook. Here at UnHerd we’re as wary of knee-jerk Luddites as we are of naïve techno-optimists. We like people who think for themselves. And we’re therefore delighted that a range of people who do think for themselves have agreed to help us think all this through.

  • Emily Bell was first digital editor of The Guardian newspaper and now leads the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Effectively providing a guide to how we got here, she reviews the impact of social media on the news industry, from pre-Facebook days to what lies ahead.
  • Sherry Turkle is a distinguished MIT professor – and psycho-analyst – who has spent most of her professional life researching the impact of the internet on real people. My meeting with her in Boston in December to discuss her work was published last month as part of UnHerd’s profiling of ‘Free Minds’ series but was originally intended to be part of this series.
  • Jean Twenge teaches psychology at San Diego State University. Her cover article in the storied U.S. magazine Atlantic caused a furor by arguing that smartphone use could lead to teenage loneliness, and even suicide. The UK’s BBC public broadcaster recently discussed her controversial claims and I assess their assessment.
  • Susan Linn, Harvard psychiatrist and founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood (and also, famed ventriloquist!), reviews the research on children and screens.
  • David Z. Morris, Forbes business magazine columnist, looks squarely at the business model. The private info of users (you and I) becomes the basis of the mega-profits of mega-corporations. He suggests potential policy solutions.

And by way of framing some of the pros and cons Sally Chatterton, UnHerd’s Deputy Editor, recently acted as umpire in a fifteen minute debate between yours truly and Tom Chivers. Tom, who takes a more upbeat view of new tech’s impact, has also been writing a little for us. Here’s the link to our friendly discussion – face-to-face encounters are nearly always happier things than Twitter debates.

The series will continue tomorrow.