A Series of Boob Tubes

The panic about social media’s influence on our politics, our kids, our selves is both late in coming and hysterical in tone—the latter no doubt driven by the former.

Had we 15 years ago been even a little thoughtful about the way we started our relationships with those platforms, we would not now be treating them like a cross between asbestos and radioactive waste. Like with cigarettes, cheap fattening foods, and unlimited pornography on demand, our backlash against the purveyors carries in it more than a little of our own embarrassment. It’s a greedy hog that is easiest to lead to slaughter. Thinking of the provider as nefariously scheming to take advantage of us may reduce our own sense of agency, but it also limits our guilt at our lack of self-control. 

But we weren’t likely to see the obvious truths back then—like the accusation from the “whistleblower” from Facebook that the company “over and over again chose to optimize for its own interests like making more money.” Imagine! Next thing you’ll tell us is that Hershey’s focuses more on selling chocolate than fighting obesity. In hindsight, it seems impossible that people could have ever believed companies that profit by selling advertising would not exploit our appetites to keep us enthralled. But our stunted understanding of those new media was shaped in the old media world we were living in. 

Social media to many of us seemed initially like at worst a free, fun time waster and just maybe could hold promise for reconnecting a culture that had become increasingly divided and isolating. When we met social media, we were already suffering under the reign of the most enthralling cultural master we had known since before the Enlightenment.

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