Yesterday my friend Jonathan Haidt published an essay that defines the term “must read.” Called “Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid,” it traces social media’s influence on the decline and fall of American institutions. I don’t want to spend too much time summarizing his argument (it might prevent you from reading his piece), but its critical contribution to the debate is explaining exactly how social media’s features have connected with our own human nature to produce the cultural and political sewer we inhabit today.
I’ve long resisted the urge to over-blame social media for our present ills. As I’ve said in countless speeches and book talks since I published Divided We Fall (out in paperback!) Americans have long proven that we’re fully capable of ripping each other to shreds without Twitter. But it’s also true that new technologies create new challenges, and can enhance the worst aspects of our human nature in novel and terrible ways.
(Think, for example, of all the ways the printing press upended the medieval world, or how the industrial revolution revolutionized both the world economy and world war.)
In each case, we couldn’t stop technological change, but we did have to adapt to it, to the point where—at the end of the cultural evolution—the new world was ultimately better than the old. The question we have now is whether we can adapt to social media before it facilitates a cultural calamity on the scale of the industrial revolution’s two world wars.