Human interaction is the first casualty of the digital age

Vivek Wadhwa

I was wrong. Too much tech is ruining lives, writes Vivek Wadhwa.

Just four years ago I was a cheerleader. Social media was supposed to be the great hope for democracy. I know because I told the world so. I said in 2014 that no-one could predict where this revolution would take us. My conclusion was dusted with optimism: a better connected human race would find a way to better itself.

I was only half right: nobody could indeed have predicted where we have ended up. Yet my optimistic prognosis was utterly misguided. Social media has led to less human interaction, not more. It has suppressed human development, not stimulated it. As Big Tech has marched onward, we have regressed.

Look at the evidence. Research shows that social media may well be making many of us unhappy, jealous and – paradoxically – antisocial. Even Facebook gets it. An academic study that Facebook cited on its corporate blog revealed that when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information, they wind up feeling worse. Just ten minutes on Facebook is enough to depress – clicking and liking a multitude of posts and links seems to have a negative effect on mental health.

Meantime, the green-eyed monster thrives on the social network: reading rosy stories and/or carefully controlled images about the social- and love-lives of others leads to poor comparisons with one’s own existence. Getting out in the warts-and-all real world and having proper conversations would provide a powerful antidote. Some chance! Humans have convinced themselves that ‘catching up’ online is a viable alternative to in-person socializing.

And what of consumer choice? Don’t book your next city break via Google. Research shows that a typical search for a romantic weekend begins with “the best hotels in…”. Yet these searches return paid-for links from big identikit hotel companies and well-funded broker websites. Local bloggers, who make it their job to suggest the most interesting stays, don’t appear until search page ten (AKA nowhere). Discovering real places, recommended by locals, got a lot harder in the internet age. Guidebooks do the job, but few buy them anymore.

We are becoming unthinkingly reliant – addicted – to ease-of-use at the expense of quality. We are walking dumpsters for internet content that we don’t need, and which might actively damage our brains.

As long ago as 2005, Cornell University researcher Brian Wansink found that people who ate soup from bowls that constantly refilled themselves consumed 73% more than those who ate out of normal bowls. Yet they felt no more satisfied. This ‘bottomless bowl’ phenomenon is the effect Netflix has when it auto-plays the next episode of a show after a cliffhanger, and you continue watching, thinking, “I can make up the sleep over the weekend.” The cliffhanger is, of course, always replaced by another cliffhanger. We spend longer in front of the television, yet we feel no more satiated. Perhaps we should go back to our smartphones and, instead of playing Netflix or searching Facebook, use their core function. Call up our friends and have a chat or – better – arrange to meet them.

Big Tech could carve an opportunity from a crisis. What about offering a subscription to an ad-free Google? For a monthly fee, searches would be based on quality of content rather than product placement.

Apple pioneered the ‘Do Not Disturb’ function which stops messages waking us unless a set of emergency-criteria were met by the caller. How about a ‘Focus Mode’ that turns off all notifications so as to ease the temptation to play with our phones when we should be working, or talking to friends?

In the 1980s, the BBC in Britain ran a children’s series called Why Don’t You? that implored viewers to “turn off their TV set and go out and do something less boring instead”, suggesting sociable activities that did not involve a screen. It was wise before its time. The TV seems like a puny adversary compared to the deadening digital army we face today. 

— Vivek Wadwha is distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering and author of Your Happiness Was Hacked