The past decade has seen improvements in technology unlike anything in history before it. The smartphone was in its infancy in the beginning of the decade, and according to a recent study has gone from being owned by 35% of Americans in 2011 to 81% in 2019. Another study found that it is far more common for Americans to stay updated on news and current events through a smartphone than through a computer.
Social media sites like Facebook and MySpace would allow users to interact with people across the world. Facebook went from approximately 400 million active monthly users in 2010 to 2.45 billion by the end of 2019. With recent UN estimates of the world population at 7.7 billion people, that puts nearly one third of the population of Earth on Facebook.
These technologies promised to usher in the ‘information age’ in which people would be better informed about the world around them, and better connected to each other by being able to communicate globally using a pocket computer. Social media sites would provide a means of staying updated with your social circle, keeping in touch with what was happening in the lives of people around you without even needing to call or message them. The stage was set for a dramatic improvement in the day-to-day life of the average person: everyone could know what what happening with anything or anyone at any moment.
While this technology does in fact allow for instantaneous communication with anyone and access to billions of pages of information, there are many ways in which the promised revolution has not only failed to deliver what was predicted at the outset of the ‘information age’, but has also created problems that were previously non-existent.
Access to information is easier than ever, yet is completely decentralized. With one estimate for the total number of websites having grown exponentially over the past decade and approaching 2 billion in total, online information sources are highly decentralized. Decentralization can lead to the proliferation of ‘fake news’ and misinformation through back channels of the internet. A recent Science magazine study found that ‘fake news’ spreads faster and to more people than genuine news does, and with so many different sources of information available to choose from, determining which sources are reliable is a messy and time-consuming process that many people avoid spending time on.
On the other hand, the centralization of the internet in the form of ultra-popular websites such as Google and Facebook leads to an intimidating level of power and control of information by a few omnipotent companies. The information stored by ‘Big Data’ consists of individual facts about your career, friendships, family, interests, spending habits, and so on, that combines to form a general profile of who you are, whether your relationship will last, how fast you drive, where you are or will travel to in the future, and more.
The dramatic increase in users on social media sites has lead to increased concern over user privacy and a debate on the degree to which social media companies should filter information to prevent the spread of fake news, issues that were both raised at the Facebook Senate Hearing of 2018. Beyond these difficulties, social media usage has been shown to lead to a variety of negative mental health effects, such as a decrease in sleep quality, hyperactivity, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Another study found higher rates of depressive symptoms and suicide in teenagers that used smartphones and social media more frequently than in a separate group that used them less often.
Despite the dangers inherent in placing massive quantities of our personal data in the hands of large corporations, there are ways to use technologies more deliberately. Websites such as DuckDuckGo offer a search alternative to Google that does not collect search data, Harvard has published one of many online guides for spotting ‘fake news’ online, and taking a break from social media could lead to a reduction in anxiety and depression.
The problems that stem from the blind belief that better technology automatically leads to a better life are becoming more and more clear. I believe that the answer to these problems is not an outright rejection of the new technologies themselves, but rather a responsible reevaluation of how we use them. It is my hope that the coming decade will see more and more people making this evaluation.