Moral Panics

[This essay originally appeared on the AIER blog on May 28, 2019. The USA TODAY also ran a shorter version of this essay as a letter to the editor on June 2, 2019.]

In a hotly-worded USA Today op-ed last week, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) railed against social media sites Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. He argued that, “social media wastes our time and resources,” and is “a field of little productive value” that have only “given us an addiction economy.” Sen. Hawley refers to these sites as “parasites” and blames them for a litany of social problems (including an unproven link to increased suicide), leading him to declare that, “we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared.”

As far as moral panics go, Sen. Hawley’s will go down as one for the ages. Politicians have always castigated new technologies, media platforms, and content for supposedly corrupting the youth of their generation. But Sen. Hawley’s inflammatory rhetoric and proposals are something we haven’t seen in quite some time.

He sounds like those fire-breathing politicians and pundits of the past century who vociferously protested everything from comic books to cable television, the waltz to the Walkman, and rock-and-roll to rap music. In order to save the youth of America, many past critics said, we must destroy the media or media platforms they are supposedly addicted to. That is exactly what Sen. Hawley would have us do to today’s leading media platforms because, in his opinion, they “do our country more harm than good.”

We have to hope that Sen. Hawley is no more successful than past critics and politicians who wanted to take these choices away from the public. Paternalistic politicians should not be dictating content choices for the rest of us or destroying technologies and platforms that millions of people benefit from. Continue reading →

Catchy headlines like “Heavy Social Media Use Linked With Mental Health Issues In Teens” and “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” advance a common trope of generational decline. But a new paper in Nature uses a new and rigorous analytical method to understand the relationship between adolescent well-being and digital technology, finding a “negative but small [link], explaining at most 0.4% of the variation in well-being.” Continue reading →

Contemporary tech criticism displays an anti-nostalgia. Instead of being reverent for the past, anxiety about the future abounds. In these visions, the future is imagined as a strange, foreign land, beset with problems. And yet, to quote that old adage, tomorrow is the visitor that is always coming but never arrives. The future never arrives because we are assembling it today.  

The distance between the now and the future finds its hook in tech policy in the pacing problem, a term describing the mismatch between advancing technologies and society’s efforts to cope with them. Vivek Wadhwa explained that, “We haven’t come to grips with what is ethical, let alone with what the laws should be, in relation to technologies such as social media.” In The Laws of Disruption, Larry Downes explained the pacing problem like this: “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally.” Or, as Adam Thierer wondered, “What happens when technological innovation outpaces the ability of laws and regulations to keep up?”

Here are three short responses. Continue reading →

Last week, science writer Michael Shermer tweeted out this old xkcd comic strip that I had somehow missed before. Shermer noted that it represented, “another reply to pessimists bemoaning modern technologies as soul-crushing and isolating.” Similarly, there’s this meme that has been making the rounds on Twitter and which jokes about how newspapers made us as antisocial in the past much as newer technologies supposedly do today.

‏The sentiments expressed by the comic and that image make it clear how people often tend to romanticize past technologies or fail to remember that many people expressed the same fears about them as critics do today about newer ones. I’ve written dozens of articles about “moral panics” and “techno-panics,” most of which are cataloged here. The common theme of those essays is that, when it comes to fears about innovations, there really is nothing new under the sun. Continue reading →

Smart Device Paranoia

by on October 5, 2015 · 0 comments

The idea that the world needs further dumbing down was really the last thing on my mind. Yet this is exactly what Jay Stanley argues for in a recent post on Free Future, the ACLU tech blog.

Specifically, Stanley is concerned by the proliferation of “smart devices,” from smart homes to smart watches, and the enigmatic algorithms that power them. Exhibit A: The Volkswagen “smart control devices” designed to deliberately mis-measure diesel emissions. Far from an isolated case, Stanley extrapolates the Volkswagen scandal into a parable about the dangers of smart devices more generally, and calls for the recognition of “the virtue of dumbness”:

When we flip a coin, its dumbness is crucial. It doesn’t know that the visiting team is the massive underdog, that the captain’s sister just died of cancer, and that the coach is at risk of losing his job. It’s the coin’s very dumbness that makes everyone turn to it as a decider. … But imagine the referee has replaced it with a computer programmed to perform a virtual coin flip. There’s a reason we recoil at that idea. If we were ever to trust a computer with such a task, it would only be after a thorough examination of the computer’s code, mainly to find out whether the computer’s decision is based on “knowledge” of some kind, or whether it is blind as it should be.

While recoiling is a bit melodramatic, it’s clear from this that “dumbness” is not even the key issue at stake. What Stanley is really concerned about is biasedness or partiality (what he dubs “neutrality anxiety”), which is not unique to “dumb” devices like coins, nor is the opacity. A physical coin can be biased, a programmed coin can be fair, and at first glance the fairness of a physical coin is not really anymore obvious.

Yet this is the argument Stanley uses to justify his proposed requirement that all smart device code be open to the public for scrutiny going forward. Based on a knee-jerk commitment to transparency, he gives zero weight to the social benefit of allowing software creators a level of trade secrecy, especially as a potential substitute to patent and copyright protections. This is all the more ironic, given that Volkswagen used existing copyright law to hide its own malfeasance.

More importantly, the idea that the only way to check a virtual coin is to look at the source code is a serious non-sequitur. After all, in-use testing was how Volkswagen was actually caught in the end. What matters, in other words, is how the coin behaves in large and varied samples. In either the virtual or physical case, the best and least intrusive way to check a coin is to simply do thousands of flips. But what takes hours with a dumb coin takes a fraction of a second with a virtual coin. So I know which I prefer.

Continue reading →

It was my pleasure this week to be invited to deliver some comments at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) to coincide with the release of their latest study, “The Privacy Panic Cycle: A Guide to Public Fears About New Technologies.” The goal of the new ITIF report, which was co-authored by Daniel Castro and Alan McQuinn, is to highlight the dangers associated with “the cycle of panic that occurs when privacy advocates make outsized claims about the privacy risks associated with new technologies. Those claims then filter through the news media to policymakers and the public, causing frenzies of consternation before cooler heads prevail, people come to understand and appreciate innovative new products and services, and everyone moves on.” (p. 1)

As Castro and McQuinn describe it, the privacy panic cycle “charts how perceived privacy fears about a technology grow rapidly at the beginning, but eventually decline over time.” They divide this cycle into four phases: Trusting Beginnings, Rising Panic, Deflating Fears, and Moving On. Here’s how they depict it in an image:

Privacy Panic Cycle - 1

 

Continue reading →

Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times posted an interesting story yesterday noting how, “Technology Has Made Life Different, but Not Necessarily More Stressful.” Her essay builds on a new study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University on “Social Media and the Cost of Caring.” Miller’s essay and this new Pew/Rutgers study indirectly make a point that I am always discussing in my own work, but that is often ignored or downplayed by many technological critics, namely: We humans have repeatedly proven quite good at adapting to technological change, even when it entails some heartburn along the way.

The major takeaway of the Pew/Rutgers study was that, “social media users are not any more likely to feel stress than others, but there is a subgroup of social media users who are more aware of stressful events in their friends’ lives and this subgroup of social media users does feel more stress.” Commenting on the study, Miller of the Times notes:

Fear of technology is nothing new. Telephones, watches and televisions were similarly believed to interrupt people’s lives and pressure them to be more productive. In some ways they did, but the benefits offset the stressors. New technology is making our lives different, but not necessarily more stressful than they would have been otherwise. “It’s yet another example of how we overestimate the effect these technologies are having in our lives,” said Keith Hampton, a sociologist at Rutgers and an author of the study.  . . .  Just as the telephone made it easier to maintain in-person relationships but neither replaced nor ruined them, this recent research suggests that digital technology can become a tool to augment the relationships humans already have.

I found this of great interest because I have written about how humans assimilate new technologies into their lives and become more resilient in the process as they learn various coping techniques. Continue reading →

As 2014 draws to a close, we take a look back at the most-read posts from the past year at The Technology Liberation Front. Thank you for reading, and enjoy. Continue reading →

I recently did a presentation for Capitol Hill staffers about emerging technology policy issues (driverless cars, the “Internet of Things,” wearable tech, private drones, “biohacking,” etc) and the various policy issues they would give rise to (privacy, safety, security, economic disruptions, etc.). The talk is derived from my new little book on “Permissionless Innovation,” but in coming months I will be releasing big papers on each of the topics discussed here.

Additional Reading:

Patrick Ruffini, political strategist, author, and President of Engage, a digital agency in Washington, DC, discusses his latest book with coauthors David Segal and David Moon: Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, the Tea Party, Gamers, Anarchists, and Suits Teamed Up to Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet. Ruffini covers the history behind SOPA, its implications for Internet freedom, the “Internet blackout” in January of 2012, and how the threat of SOPA united activists, technology companies, and the broader Internet community.

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