Internet good or bad? Yes (2)

[1,000 words]

The Internet keeps getting busier — more people going online and spending more time once they get there. It’s also becoming a worse place to be, on almost any objective measure: mental health, privacy, safety, social cohesion, cyberwarfare, etc.

Can we love the Internet and still hate what it’s doing to us?

In two reports released in April, the Pew Research Center provides some surprising answers. The first report doesn’t bury the lead. It’s entitled “A Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society” But there’s a sharp counterpoint accompanying that finding. These respondents see good for themselves as individuals — but for society, not so much (gen-pop survey here).

As Pew has found over the years, most Americans see the Internet as a positive force in their lives. In this year’s survey, Pew found a high proportion of respondents felt positive about the Internet’s role in their lives — 88% in all, virtually unchanged from 2014. But as the graphic indicates, users are less upbeat about how the Internet affects society as a whole. The “good for society” contingent has dropped from a 76% share to 70% today, while those saying a “mix of good and bad” rose from 8% to 14% today.

Source: Pew Research Center, April 2018

One of the top two reasons given by respondents for their positive view of the Internet’s social role is the ability to stay connected with other people. The main reason cited for the “Internet bad” view is exactly the opposite: it prevents people from being connected. Oh the ambivalence.

Will this disenchantment keep growing as the Internet gets less hospitable for many people? Enter the crystal ball.

Back in January, I described the experts survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and Elon University — the ninth in their stakeholder surveys on the future of the Internet. The subject for this year’s edition was The future impact of digital technologies and hyper-connectedness on people’s well-being (report pdf here; for background, see Imagining the Internet).

These experts survey results aren’t “scientific,” as they’re the opinions of a group that’s been “canvassed” not selected at random. That doesn’t make the results any less interesting. This opinionated group of 1,150 technologists, academics and others generated enough material for two reports based on over 400 pages of predictive statements. The basic method is still to ask for yes/no responses then offer as much space as needed to elaborate (see Jan 14 post).  

The setup survey question: “Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally — will it be mostly helpful to well-being, mostly harmful or about the same as today?”

The initial yes-no responses provide a handy numerical scorecard on the effects of digital life in the coming decade:

  • More helped than harmed: 47% 
  • More harmed than helped: 32%
  • Little change expected: 21%

Given all the bad news these days, I was surprised the optimists outnumbered the pessimists by 15 points. On the other hand, the respondents have a lot to add in their elaborations, which provide a far more complex picture. It begins with a list of harms, benefits and remedies.

When I wrote my response to the main question, I had no trouble finding harms, which I summed up thusly:

“Much like a mutating virus, digital services and devices keep churning out new threats along with the new benefits – making mitigation efforts a daunting and open-ended challenge for everyone” (report, pp.30-31; see Jan.14 post).

I had a harder time coming up with actual remedies — and got some perverse relief from the report’s summary list of remedies, which suggests there are no easy answers (report p.4): 

  1. Reimagine systems: societies can revise tech arrangements and human institutions.
  2. Reinvent tech: improve human-centered tech performance, and exploit tools like AI and VR.
  3. Regulate: create reforms through agreement on standards, guidelines, codes of conduct, and passage of laws and rules.
  4. Redesign media literacy: formally educate people of all ages about the impacts of digital life on well-being and the way tech systems function, as well as encourage appropriate, healthy uses 
  5. Recalibrate expectations: human-technology co-evolution means people must gradually evolve and adjust to digital changes. 
  6. Fated to fail: some respondents say all this may help, but it’s unlikely to be effective enough. 

Granted they’re just bullets but items #1, 2 and 5 strike me as too general to point to next steps. Tech should certainly be more human-centered, but getting Silicon Valley to see that is a tall order. The industry obsession with eliminating all effort from our lives isn’t exactly what you’d call “human-centered” and isn’t going anywhere.

Item #3 — regulate — has been getting a lot of attention since Facebook’s Cambridge-Analytica screwup. But splitting up a company like Facebook is a hugely complicated endeavor. Today, we’re galloping in the opposite direction — AT&T acquiring Time Warner, Disney likely to acquire Fox, T-Mobile likely to merge with Sprint. And real privacy regulation? Not from Trump’s Swampland.

Whatever other help we need, redesigning media or technical literacy is the key. We need a completely different approach not only to “formal” education but to how everyone sees their role in digital life and what they can do to make it better.

That means we have to stop blaming the Valley for the growing risks to our well-being. Sure, let’s regulate them if we can. But blaming tech companies while we keep phubbing everyone in the room isn’t a remedy.

My classroom experience shows students pay attention to the role of technology once they start learning how the heck it works. But not by using tools like AI and VR as item #2 suggests, à la Zuckerberg. Technology, it turns out, makes learning about technology much harder, not easier.

Will millions rise to the occasion when called on to understand how, say, algorithms steal their personal agency? As item #6 reminds us, much of what we attempt won’t work or may be too ambitious. But making ourselves smarter about tech is what we should be aiming for, while looking for ways to make the Valley show a little more respect for our humanity.