Blog – 6.5.24

This week I read Ted Gioia’s State of the Culture 2024 (published back in February) and it’s been on my mind a lot because, well, it’s all true.

I shared the link on Facebook and one of my friends commented, “The problem with pieces like this is that they sound so panicky that they sound like conspiracy theories. But they aren’t.” I was surprised by her statement because I didn’t think anything about this sounded panicky or conspiratorial. This is just the flat out reality that I’ve been watching every day for the last twenty years, and frankly, I’m relieved that other people are finally starting to take notice.

My generation got all the way to adulthood before the digital revolution hit. I think I was 17 or 18 when I got my first email address. I remember the day when someone logged me onto the world wide web for the very first time and introduced me to Yahoo! It was a revelation.

For a long time, I was steeped in the Kool-Aid, obsessed with the potential of our new technologies, worshipping at the silicon altar. Despite not being a digital native, I was always an early adopter, and I’ve lived an extremely online existence these past few decades. I knew things were going sideways long before the 2016 election. But that political moment was a catalyst for me taking action to try to mitigate the damage of a world drunk on dopamine. The negative impacts of perpetual connectivity combined with nefarious digital manipulation and a nauseating level of naiveté from people who were supposed to be ‘leading’ our society – politicians, journalists, and academics – had brought a pox upon our house in the form of Donald J. Trump. Something had to be done.

So, in 2017 I launched the Institute for Digital Civic Culture, which was a program I designed to help people in leadership positions understand the physical, emotional and psychological impacts of social media. I also sought to educate them about the nature of mass communications and the need to understand how things worked from that perspective. I emphasized the power of being able to influence enormous numbers of people with our shitty moods and rhetorical parroting, and that this power was being wielded by millions of untrained members of society at all levels.

Additionally, I was in my mid-40s in 2016 and had begun to see an alarming deterioration in my ability to focus and process information. My mind – which for most of my life had been reliably powerful – was starting to fail me. It was terrifying.

Right around that time is when I started taking breaks from social media. At first I’d take only a week or two. It was shocking to see signs of addiction in myself when deprived of constant distraction. But as days offline went by, I began picking up books, going for walks, journaling on paper, and doing other analog shit that had sustained me intellectually for the first half of my life. That was when I started to realize just how much danger we’re in, individually and collectively.

During the Industrial Revolution, there was a significant shift in the mental and physical health of people who had not evolved to work in an environment where they performed rote, repetitive movements in cramped quarters. The physical and mental health of millions of people suffered, and today we are still battling the impacts of this kind of ‘progress’ – everything from carpal tunnel syndrome to depression, from obesity to chronic back pain. Our canaries are lying dead in digital coal mines, a heap of broken minds, hearts and bodies, and still, we keep digging. We can’t stop. We won’t stop. We need to keep going. We don’t want to be left behind.

The digital revolution has had similar lasting damage on a species that was never meant to live in a state of constant emotional and intellectual reactivity. Our mental health, nervous systems, and social cohesion are deteriorating before our eyes – and because this has all happened so quickly, we have yet to study and understand the full impacts. As our technology continues to evolve faster than we can, we’ll become increasingly dependent on it, until our will belongs to it – and those who own the IP that make it possible.

Does anyone even care? My IDCC program failed spectacularly because most people don’t actually think they have a problem. This is, of course, a clear sign of addiction. Admitting we have a problem is the first step in any 12-step recovery. But admitting we have a problem with our (ab)use of technology is a lonely road. We’re all a bunch of lab rats, hopped up on our dopamine machines, convinced that we have it under control. We laugh at people who are ‘analog’ or who wave red flags as being overly dramatic or backward.

But we are, in fact, out of control.

Go ahead, call me panicky. Call me conspiratorial. You know I’m right. I know I’m right. I’ve had a front row seat for this shit show for three decades, and it’s only getting worse. I’m not panicked at all. I’m just not in denial. Not anymore.

Look, technology is not evil. But even a modicum of self-awareness demands that we recognize where and how it is undermining our ability to live well together. There are ways forward, ways to learn self-control and accountability. Ways to reclaim the gifts of our full intellect. Ways to re-learn how to simply be alive, without distraction. These ways served our ancestors well, and the truth is, we will suffer if we forego them. We are suffering.

I’ve given up trying to convince others of this. But if you’ve made it this far in this blog post, I have a very important message for you – and I hope, for your sake and for mine, that you take it to heart:

Save yourself.

I, for one, don’t want to get to the end of my life with my mind destroyed, my body in a state of constant distress from decades of overstimulation, and regretting lost moments when I sacrificed sunshine and stars for the glow of a screen. If I have to go it alone, I will.

Because my life is worth living offline. And yours is, too.

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