Social media on mobile devices “is a totally new species of power and influence…the methods used to play on people’s ability to be addicted or to be influenced are probably different this time,” says Tristan Harris, social media activist and co-founder at the Center for Humane Technology in the recent Netflix documentary, “Social Dilemma.”
Referring to social media addiction and related side-effects, Harris continues:
“There’s this narrative that, you know, we’ll just adapt to it, we’ll learn how to live with these devices, just like we’ve learned how to live with everything else. And what this misses, is there’s something distinctly new here.”
Harris strikes a chord. “Social Dilemma” one of was Netflix’s top Fall movies for 2020 and it’s easy to see why. The concern over social media causing mayhem in the period leading up to the presidential elections was a hot topic and, with the recent announcements of government action against Facebook and Google, it continues to dominate the current news cycle.
A Wall Street Journal review of the movie says “The most urgent question posed by “The Social Dilemma” is whether democracy can survive the social networks’ blurring of fact and fiction. It draws attention to Harris’ question about the impact of social media, “Imagine a world where no one believes what’s true.” Can the stakes be higher than living in a world where no one believes what’s true?
Seeing the Future Through a Rear-View Mirror
But is there something distinctly new? Is it really different this time? Or have we been through this before and pulled through more or less intact? Society has had to deal with similar challenges in the past. Social media is only the latest of a number of prior information revolutions, so we have from where to learn about today’s social dilemma.
Let’s take a brief look back at previous information revolutions, starting with the invention of the written word.
Invention of Written Language
In our current world of information overload, it is hard to conceive of a time when information was transmitted exclusively by word of mouth. Historian and philosopher Walter Ong, in his seminal study of oral societies points out that even today, “of the 3000 languages spoken today that exist today only some 78 have a literature…[and], hundreds of languages in active use are never written at all.” (Ong, 2002, p. 7). So, the idea that information could be transmitted using symbols scrawled on a papyrus, scratched into a cave wall, or engraved into a clay tablet is anything but obvious.
Try and imagine the revolution in thought and deed needed to transform spoken sounds into a form that could be stored, accurately replicated, and preserved for posterity. The range of technologies needed to support a written language is vast; specifically, an instrument for writing, some form of ink or paint, prepared surfaces upon which to record the message, and an agreed upon set of coded symbols to represent ideas or words. (Ong, 2002, p. 81). Unlike later developments, writing probably evolved over hundreds of years from cave paintings to something we can call an actual written language.
The idea that someone’s thoughts could outlive them with perfect fidelity was not universally celebrated. The observation that new forms of information were unnatural and dangerous recurred with each new information revolution.
Writing Appears in Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece began as oral society. Writing appeared sometime in the 8th century BCE, but it took time to catch on. By the time Plato appeared on the world stage, writing had been around for several hundred years, but it was still sufficiently novel to cause Plato concern.
In Phaedrus (The Dialogues), Plato laments that writing “gives your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” (Plato)
What worried Plato was an inherent disconnect between information producers and consumers. He felt that the information consumer’s inability to question its producer would lead them to misinterpret the producer’s intent. The result would lead to misunderstanding and confusion.
Plato wasn’t alone. As strange as it sounds to our 21st century ears, for most of history, speech was considered more authoritative than the written word. Case in point, witnesses in medieval courts were believed over legal documents, because witnessed could be challenged and made to defend their statements in a way that documents could not. (Clanchy, 2012)
It reasonable to assume that nobody argued with Plato when he said “this time, it’s different” when he raised concerns about the written word.
The Invention of Printing
The appearance of printed books in the 15th century was considered the next major revolution in information technology. As with the appearance of the written word, the print revolution introduced a broad range of supporting inventions need to printed books practical, from the printing press itself, to less obvious inventions such as paper, distribution networks, and a sufficiently literate audience to buy the finished works.
Unlike the written word revolution, the invention of the printing press didn’t introduce a new form of communication, it ‘merely’ enabled the previous generation of books and manuscripts to scale to heretofore impossible proportions. (In this regard, there are some important similarities between the adoption of print technologies as with the adoption of social media.)
The onslaught of new reading material created a new problem, namely, information overload. Prior to the invention of the printing press, most people had access to few books, if any at all. Historian Michael Clapham observed that:
“A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about million books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in AD 330.” (Eisenstein, The printing press as an agent of change , 1980, p. 45) quoting (Clapham, 1957, p. 37)
While Clapham probably underestimates the number of available books prior to the advent of the printing press, his point about scale is valid.
Harvard historian Ann Blair explores the tools invented to fight information overload following the appearance of the printing press. In her book, Too Much to Know, Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, Blair draws attention to the struggles of 16th century Swiss polymath Conrad Gesner caused by the sudden availability of (too) many books. Gesner wrote “the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.”
To Gesner, the appearance of the printed book made it impossible for the first time in history (at least in Europe), to read every book available. The risk of missing an important book could lead to not knowing the truth. Gesner’s solution was “to prevent this danger, by separating those books which we must throw out… from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not.” (Blair A. M., 2010)
Inundated by too much to read from too many different sources, Gesner’s solution was to focus on books written by reputable sources. In essence, Gesner may have been the first person to propose a solution to overload by filtering information using reviewers and recommendations.
As he pored over a stack of new books, we can easily imagine Gesner contemplating the danger to society as he thought to himself, “We had a lot of information before, but this time it’s different.”
Newspapers for the Masses
Fast forward a few hundred years to the early 1800s when the ‘penny press’ newspaper revolution was taking off in the US. Supported by advertising (like today’s social media), these papers were priced at just one cent, far below the cost of competing newspapers, which made them available to the masses. The first penny paper, The Sun was introduced in New York in 1833. Wildly popular, the Sun’s circulation reached 10 times that of competing papers within a single year of publication. Penny papers provided the masses access to daily news (and ads) for the first time. (Kovarik, 2015)
Why were these papers successful? For one, the papers focused on sensationalist stories and hoaxes, the kind of stories that draw people in, precisely the same kind of stories exploited on social media to sell Facebook ads. Then, as today, people continue to be drawn to the extreme and the absurd, whether the stories are true or not.
One can imagine Benjamin Day, publisher of The Sun sitting in his office, telling his staff, “This time, it’s different.”
The next information revolution occurred shortly after the penny paper, with the introduction of the telegraph in the middle of the 19th century.
The impact on society brought on by electric telegraph is hard to exaggerate. Consider this: the telegraph enabled a person to transmit text for the first time in history, from one place to a geographically remote location, in almost real-time. Prior to the telegraph, the maximum speed of information transfer was the speed of a horse, train, or ship. It took weeks to send a message from New York to London. Using the telegraph, that time was reduced to a few seconds.
Like the written word, the success of the telegraph required a new code of agreed upon symbols, e.g. Morse code. It also leveraged several concurrent developments, such as electricity and railroad tracks (for rights of way).
The telegraph introduced an immense compression of time and space that was completely novel in its day. For the first generation that experienced the telegraph, this was pure magic. So, it’s easy to imagine a telegraph operator in London who has just received a message from New York, thinking to themselves “This time, it’s different.”
The Graphic Revolution
The mid-19th century saw another information revolution — photography, which was the first of several visual inventions that became part of ‘the graphic revolution.’ Subsequent inventions include graphic posters, movies, and of course, television.
Like earlier information revolutions, each of these inventions relied upon a set of new supporting technologies. Photography introduced a new breed of cheap cameras and an ecosystem for developing and printing photos. Movies spawned a new industry of writers, actors, and directors, and television required networks of stations with writers, reporters, and technicians to generate and deliver content.
Television was to pictures what the telegraph was to text. TV could magically transmit live pictures from one part of the world to another, instantaneously. Television contributed to a new form of information overload called ‘pseudo-events.’ Historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event as an event produced for the sole purpose of generating media attention and publicity, for example, a press conference or a presidential debate. With politicians and PR agencies creating pseudo-events for TV, artificially staged events became topics of news in their own right. Today, airwaves are filled with pseudo-events, such as endless hours of pundits analyzing presidential tweets and sound bites. Boorstin points out that the pseudo-event ushered in an age where it became ‘more important that a statement be believable than it is true.’ To highlight his point, Boorstin observes that how we judge a candidate’s demeanor during a debate is more important than what they actually say.
Boorstin also highlights a new phenomenon introduced by television, namely, the expectation for instantaneous answers. Critiquing the 1960 presidential debates, Boorstin writes “Every inquirer knows that the most thoughtful and responsive answers to any difficult question come after long pause… nonetheless, the electronic media cannot bear to suffer a pause of more than five seconds… the television watching voter was left to judge, not on issues explored by thoughtful men, but on the relative capacity of the two candidates to perform under television stress.
Boorstin’s five seconds would seem like an eternity to today’s Facebook users who expect an instantaneous emoji response to every post.
Boorstin’s iconic 1962 book about the graphic revolution The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America screams “This time, it’s different.” (Boorstin, 1962)
The Internet and Web 2.0
The recent Internet and subsequent Web 2.0 revolutions have enabled anyone with a computer and a data link to create content and post it online for everyone on the planet to see.
Similar to the printing press, Web 2.0 technologies amplify existing media formats, by enabling a new scale of content generation and audience reach. With so many people writing blogs, posting to Facebook, or sending out tweets, Web 2.0 re-introduces the problem experienced with the invention of the printing press; too much information to process. Gesner’s lament about “the multitude of books leading to a barbarous society” rings as true today as it did in 1545.
Oftentimes, the proposed solution to a problem brought on by one technology is another technology. Artificial intelligence (AI) is one such technology proposed to solve the problem of Internet information overload. AI is used by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies to rein in information overload by personally prioritizing and presenting only the most ‘relevant’ information. In a 2008 cover story for The Atlantic, entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid, information researcher Nicholas Carr raised concerns that artificial intelligence algorithms are “spitting information at us and are destroying our ability to read, or think, deeply because they are filling those quiet spaces and filling them with content; information overload.”
Carr, like Gesner before him, is saying … “this time, it’s different.”
Mobile Devices and Social Media
Carr’s article appeared as the mobile smartphone and social media revolution was taking off. When Carr published his article in 2008, Facebook had a ‘mere’ 100 million users; today Facebook has 2.6 billion monthly average users, with an incredible 96% of them accessing the social media platform from mobile devices.
This is world that Tristan Harris addresses in the Social Dilemma when he says, “this time, it’s different.”
Is It Different This Time?
Is Harris right? Is it really different this time? The question is much more complex than it seems at first blush.
Historians use several models to compare historical events and developments, but the domain is less developed than one might think. A 2000 Association for Information Management (ASLIB) Proceedings article entitled A Distant Mirror? The Internet and the Printing Press highlights problems comparing different periods, but concludes that “nonetheless, an examination of an earlier communications revolution may provide lessons for understanding the one currently underway,” without providing guidelines for how to perform that examination. (Bawden D. a., 200).
Telematics professor Chris Bissell breaks down the difficulty of analyzing information revolutions in history, by raising the following points:
- Which revolution? — the printing press was accompanied by a host of contemporaneous inventions like mass-produced paper, new kinds of ink, new book distribution methods, new accounting practices, and many others. None of these inventions existed in a vacuum, they all worked in concert to create something new. So exactly which revolution are we are talking about? There are many ways to look at the same events and reach different conclusions. This is true for all major events in history, and information revolutions are no exception. (Shapin, 1996)
- What is information? — information is a broad term used to describe anything as atomic as a string of digital bits to business report, to a literature masterpiece. When comparing information in history, a good definition is needed to clarify the nature of the investigation.
- What is ‘the’? — “the word ‘the’ implies that a completely unprecedented and unique event has occurred.” In the context of an information revolution, when exactly did the event occur? For example, did a revolution occur when the first book was printed or when the availability of printed books reached a sufficient level that drove social change? The same question can be asked about Facebook. Did a revolution occur when Harvard students began sharing information on an internal network or did one occur when Facebook reached its 100 millionth user? (Bissell, 2011)
A Framework for Historical Comparison
In a recent article entitled, The Case for the Technological Comparison in Communication History, communications professor Jerome Bourdon lays out five methods for comparing two technologies across different historical periods. The five methods are as follows:
- The determinist comparison — technology-driven narratives that adhere to a linear notion of causality. This is how most of history textbooks are written.
- All-encompassing comparison — extends the determinist method to encompass more than two comparisons. It tries to isolate the specific contribution of technologies to more global developments without making the technology a central factor in human history.
- Discursive comparison — examines how different technologies were talked about at the same relative stages of their maturity; for example, comparing experiences from the first generation of telegraph users with those of first-generation Internet users.
- Deconstructing comparison — explores technologies as a collection of related developments. For example, this method might compare the printing press and the Internet ‘revolutions’ as a collection of literacy education, equipment, and business practices during the relative eras.
- One-dimensional comparison — closed comparison that compares only a single aspect common to two or more technologies across different periods of history. An example would be to examine changes in reading patterns following the invention of the printing press and upon introduction of the Internet.
In this article, I have mixed and matched some of these methods to show how complex the question and its analysis can be.
There is Hope Ahead
While it is not easy to answer the question ‘is it different this time?’ there is something to be learned from previous widespread adoptions of new information technologies. Because regardless of how we define information technology revolutions, or their impact on society, one thing is true — throughout history, many people feared the use of new information technologies. And while many of those people had good cause for worry, the fact is that we are still here.
So, while today’s addictive technology and manipulative algorithms seem insurmountable, I cautiously opine that there is reason to be optimistic.
We aren’t out of the woods by any means and Harris’ organization provides a valuable service by spotlighting the excesses of the social media platforms by exposing the tricks and methods used by those firms to keep us engaged. But if history is any guide, we will eventually right the ship, whether it is through awareness, legislation, regulation, new competition, or a combination of these or other methods. And we will still be asking ourselves, “Is it different this time?”
Bissell, C. (2011). ‘The Information Revolution:’ Taking a Long View. In M. a. Ramage, Perspective on Information (pp. 21–35). New York: Routledge.
Blair, A. (2003). Reading strategies for coping with information overload ca. 1550–1700. Journal of the History of Ideas, 64(1), 11–28.
Blair, A. M. (2010). Too much to know: Managing scholarly information before the modern age. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Boorstin, D. J. (1962). The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. New York: Atheneum.
Bourdon, J. (2018). The case for the technological comparison in communication history. Communication Theory, 28(1), 89–109.
Carr, N. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 107(2), 89–94.
Clanchy, M. T. (2012). From memory to written record: England 1066–1307. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Clapham, M. (1957). Printing. In C. H. Singer, A History of Technology (Vol. 3, pp. 377–410). Oxford.
Eisenstein, E. L. (1980). The printing press as an agent of change . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eisenstein, E. L. (1983). The printing revolution in early modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kovarik, B. (2015). Revolutions in communication: Media history from Gutenberg to the digital age. Bloomsbury: Pittsburgh.
Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge.
Plato. (n.d.). Phaedrus. Retrieved from MIT Classics: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/phaedrus.html
Shapin, S. (1996). The Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The Social Dilemma Transcript. (2020, October 3). Retrieved from Scraps from the Loft: https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/2020/10/03/the-social-dilemma-movie-transcript/