The Haidt of controversy

I’m guessing most of you are familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work on the harm of social media and smartphones. He’s out with a book summing up years of work and has been making the podcast circuit. His arguments are compelling and his case against tech is absolutely damning. His suggestions for ameliorating the problem are shakier, mainly because there is no obvious or realistic societal solution, especially for kids.

There’s been a barrage of criticism. Most of it deals with technical points, correlation vs. causation. Some of it is ethical: We need Facebook Twitter Mastodon to keep virtue signaling. Some of it is an appeal to lack of agency / late stage capitalism / whatever other -ism is popular, therefore we have no alternative to just being blobs watching TikTok videos.

I think it all sort of misses the point.

Everyone I know, myself included, that’s done a massive scaling back of online life has reported huge benefits. This isn’t a matter of burning all my devices, but preferring to email a friend instead of an Instagram story, not having any tech in the bedroom (especially considering iPhone alarms are no longer reliable), using more traditional media instead of getting news from social media (for example, The Economist and Atlantic have informative email newsletters which leave me more informed than getting the news” from Reddit).

For adults it’s painfully obvious yet incredibly simple. Get off your phone and social media. Start with Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, and, as much as I hate cliches, your life will be transformed.

For kids, I have no idea. From what I can tell, American kids don’t seem to interact with each other much in real life, and not sitting on snapchat all day means zero social interaction. Holland seems better for now, but America is usually the bellwether so who knows how much longer I’ll see kids playing outside, not glued to their phones.

The other thing is that in the space of ten years phones went from being an oddity to so ubiquitous that people have forgotten what life was like before them to the point that I’m basically Ted Kaczynski because I can take a shit without my phone. I honestly think people have forgotten that it’s ok to be bored and unstimulated for a few minutes, that you don’t need to escape from every instance of social awkwardness, and that despite all the conveniences that phones offer, we can also get by without them, and did so just fine ten years ago.