As hard as it is to imagine, the Internet has had its day. In the future, it will become a smaller part of people’s lives.
My parents were dumbfounded as the Radio Shack salesperson explained each feature of the Tandy 1000 EX personal computer.
They were about to lay down $1,000—over $2,700 today—on a device they could not understand and for which they had no use. All they knew was what they had heard from friends and the media: Computers were the future, and the kids would fall behind if we didn’t learn to speak their new language at a young age. This was news to me too.
As naïve as this all sounds, the advice was sound. Personal computers were the future in the late 1980s. They would revolutionize the economy and the way work was done. Productivity skyrocketed in the 1990s as typewriters neared extinction, databases replaced file cabinets and card catalogs, and handwritten paper spreadsheets were replaced with the only kind of spreadsheet we know today. Millions of high-paying jobs appeared for young people who knew how to operate a computer.
Then computers transformed the culture.
What my generation learned
Dial-up modems delivered grainy porn images and video to millions of anonymous users upon demand, saving them the awkwardness of interacting with a cashier somewhere. A generation of young men and boys were classically conditioned to associate the Internet with sexual arousal.
People started using email, forums, and early social media to interact in new ways. Search engines or social media sites could find old friends, relatives, or classmates who had moved away. Many warm reunions occurred.
An entire generation learned a lesson: This Internet thing was great!
Yet there was something different in this new culture. We could be anonymous. The sport of trolling was invented, and certain personalities reveled at the opportunity to say anything, irritate anybody, harass people, and vandalize serious discussions. There was no longer any risk of being punched in the nose.
Those with unpopular opinions could finally speak their minds without risk in their own forums, whether they were Marxists, fascists, racists, conspiracy theorists, idiosyncratic thinkers, atheists, people with kinks, or just people who don’t like dogs. They could avoid all risk of losing the respect of their families, friends, or coworkers by keeping their online personas separate from their physical lives.
All these people felt empowered, which reinforced the lesson: This social media thing was great!
With anonymity came unaccountability, and an entire generation enjoyed this newfound freedom to say whatever they want, be whomever they want, or believe whatever they want without the social burdens of the old reality.
People were different online, each for their own reasons. Some wanted to play the troll game, others played the game of earning the esteem of other anonymous participants, and still others explored what it would be like to try on a different mind – the meek became the militant, the straight-laced became goofballs, the socially awkward became popular, and teens were recognized as sages. A 1993 New Yorker cartoon captured the zeitgeist, saying, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Social media freed individuals from the constraints of physical and social reality, and this newfound freedom to live a parallel life—often as a different persona—felt great.
We quickly self-segregated into information bubbles. These bubbles were organized in various ways across social media platforms and “news” services, but all offered relief from the burden of justifying opinions or hearing alternative perspectives. This felt pleasant, so we experienced reinforcement for a behavior that ultimately isolated us from reality and taught us to avoid challenges to our ideas.
It spills over
Everything seemed fine until the information bubbles started spilling into the real world. In 2016, a man armed with an automatic rifle fired shots in a pizza restaurant because he had read, and believed, a conspiracy theory on social media about there being child sex slaves entrapped in the building’s non-existent basement.
In 2020, the world was faced with a pandemic that could kill tens of millions. Conspiracy theorists emerged from their information bubbles to oppose masking, temporary closures of crowded venues, and vaccination. They even disrupted vaccination events.
So far, COVID-19 has killed 1.1 million people in the US and left the country with a death rate far higher than many places with far fewer resources. Countries like Denmark, Jordan, South Africa, Canada, and Jamaica experienced less than half the deaths per million people than the US, suggesting hundreds of thousands of US deaths could have been prevented had we processed information differently. The excess deaths represent a loss of life similar to what a nuclear weapon could do.
Meanwhile, the QAnon conspiracy theory/cult attracted millions of followers based on nothing more than user-generated content within information bubbles. A 2020 Ipsos survey found that 17% of Americans agreed with the statement that “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring is trying to control our politics and media.” Another 37% said they were unsure. QAnon ideology motivated a series of crimes, culminating in the January 6, 2021 coup attempt.
Pathology in your pocket
The introduction of the touchscreen smartphone in 2007 began a new era of tech addiction. Social media corporations engineered ways to increase the number of ads their users viewed. Those of us who had internalized the old value set about the Internet being a Very Good Thing found it hard to imagine ourselves as product rather than customer. It was even harder to think of addiction in terms of a conditioned behavioral compulsion rather than a substance dependency.
By 2021, most of us were spending more than 5 hours per day on our smartphones. Some were using their phones for more hours than a full-time job. A typical smartphone user checks their device 63 times per day, a behavior which would be considered compulsive if it wasn’t so normal. Thirteen percent of Millennials spend more than 12 hours per day on their phone, which would seem to leave little time for sleep, work, personal hygiene, or real-life relationships.
A 2019 poll found that 30% of Millennials say they always or often feel lonely. Twenty-two percent say they have no friends at all. Meanwhile, the scientific community began producing volumes of research tying our new way of living to pathological outcomes.
Social media usage has been associated with feelings of loneliness and social isolation, distractibility, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances. The US suicide rate has increased over 35% since 1999, a timing that aligns with the rise of social media. Researchers are exploring how social media and our cell phones create addictions, using similar neural pathways as opioids, and even leading to motor vehicle fatalities because people can’t ignore the prompts.
A fact vs. belief collision
A fair summary is that smartphone and social media usage are probably bad for your mental health and your democracy. Mountains of research support this conclusion. To argue against the science is to recite the mantra we learned as a generation: The Internet Is A Good Thing!
We can justify our screen habit, pointing to features like convenient e-commerce, video calls, “free” news, 24/7 connectivity, entertainment on demand, and say these are all Good Things. Yet the problem isn’t a lack of features—it’s a lifestyle of connected isolation, friendlessness, and entire days spent online.
We sound a bit like alcoholics as we rattle off rationalizations and go on the defensive. Like them, we are in denial of objective reality, and our beliefs are at odds with the facts. The misery and emptiness of our lives must have some other cause—any other cause—than our compulsion or addiction. We cannot bear the cognitive dissonance between “The Internet Is A Good Thing!” and the reality of our lives steadily worsening in its grip.
As people pour more and more of their time into staring at liquid crystal displays, they stop doing the things that once provided mental sustenance and alignment with external reality. The time comes from somewhere, and research suggests it is coming out of sleep and reality-based relationships. Several hours per day may be more than we ever had to spare.
If it can’t go on forever…
The economist Herbert Stein once wrote “if it can’t go on forever, it will stop.” Since then, Stein’s Law has been applied against various claims that a trend will continue forever, or beyond some absurd point.
We shouldn’t have to apply a tautology such as this, but we do. Humans have a tendency to see trends as a pattern, and patterns as something real about the universe. Yet history is replete with trends that last a while, then fade away.
Before we resign ourselves to statements like “social media is here to stay” we should first ask whether that is even possible.
Is it possible for people to continually increase the number of hours per day spent staring at their smartphones? Or does the trend have to stop at some point equal to 24 hours minus minimum sleep time, personal hygiene time, eating time, and working time?
Eventually, a hard limit is reached, beyond which the human cannot further reduce other activities in their lives without disconnecting or dying. The amount of time people could possibly devote to their smartphones has a physical upper limit, so the attention economy cannot grow forever.
Similarly, can a pathological behavior continue increasing forever? At some point, people try to quit or avoid toxic behaviors. The people resistant to the behavior thrive and become the new archetypes for others to emulate. Addictive substances such as crack cocaine, heroin, or crystal methamphetamine never addicted full populations, despite their pharmacological potential to do so. Some humans refuse to try such things at all, and some observe the negative effects on others and decide not to end up that way. The millions of people quitting Facebook are performing the same behavioral algorithm our ancestors did when they observed their peers becoming ill after eating a certain berry. How high can the suicide rate go before we are similarly motivated?
The next generation
We can speculate that a flipping of the trend might occur somewhere between our tech-addicted generation and the generations after us. A future generation, who always had to compete with phones and tablets for their parents’ attention, might rebel against their elders in unpredictable ways. They will need to establish their autonomy and identities by doing things differently. Rest assured, young people 10-20 years from now will not be using smartphones that look like today’s smartphones or social media in the same way we use it now.
The Pandemic Generation will not be as bedazzled by the Internet’s potential to solve certain communication and entertainment problems as our generation is. They will assume the Internet and want a life better than the older generation is living. They will grow up without the “Internet Is Good” mantra, and evaluate things through fresh eyes.
Their definition of unfashionable might be aimed at our generation. We are the people with few or no close friends, clinging to pitiful conspiracy theories, and spending our lives as the product in some information bubble, consuming ads for the benefit of faceless mega-corporations. The next generation might laugh at our ambitions to become “influencers” and hold a deep skepticism for the Internet validation we crave.
This is not to say the evolution of the Internet won’t create something even more toxic to addict them. All we know is that the current trend cannot continue forever, and so it must change.
The most positive path the next generation could take would be a rejection of the old social-media-centric lifestyle, a rejection of our Gullible Generation’s intellectual promiscuity, and an emphasis on epistemic discipline and authentic, reality-based relationships. If even a small sub-culture emerged with these values, it would define the generation and lead the world out of a dead-end.
Yet we cannot know if this positive path is what our soon-to-be rebellious children will choose. They could instead lead a revival in religious participation in an attempt to escape the insecurity and isolation of the old culture. We only know things must change.
Some lessons about futurism
I am heretically claiming the Internet will become a smaller part of people’s lives. Call it a cowardly form of futurism, predicting not what will be but what will no longer be. It’s a much easier way to be right, the simple embrace of Stein’s Law, a way to avoid the extrapolation fallacy that creeps into even the most radical predictions of futurists. A glance at past visions of the future reveals the problem: Most predictions are simply extensions of existing trends.
Most futurists simply extrapolate the introduction of a technology—the car, nuclear energy, spacecraft—into things like flying cars, miniaturized household nuclear reactors, and vacations to the moon. Behind every error was a flawed assumption that the new technology or cultural trend will not hit a natural ceiling in its development.
Could the Internet be the same way?
We don’t have nuclear cars due to limitations around the toxicity of radiation that were never resolved. The flying cars and sentient robots envisioned in the 1960s cartoon The Jetsons are nowhere to be found here in the 21st century, because we still don’t really understand gravity and because of fundamental limitations in the development of artificial intelligence. What if today’s smartphones and social media are nearing their own inherent limitations?
Remember how early futurist Thomas Malthus predicted overpopulation and draconian food shortages? The United Nations reports that “the global population is growing at its slowest rate since 1950, having fallen to less than one percent in 2020.”
Let’s dwell on population growth for a second. Imagine how difficult it would have been for someone a few generations ago, with their cultural assumptions about the desirability of large families and the role of women, to foresee our current cultural trend toward couples choosing to be childless. This humbling example cautions us not to assume people in the future will want the same things we do. Imagine a new generation not caring about likes, emojis, Reddit flair, re-tweets, or text chatting!
If such a realignment of values seems inconceivable, you are stuck in the present.
Similarly, as you sulk in disappointment over your lack of a flying car, consider how people are already eschewing car ownership in a world of ubiquitous rideshare services. The morning commute of George Jetson is already an anachronism for millions of people now working from home.
Envisioning a low-Internet world
I’m not saying Internet protocols, integrated circuits, communications networks, and smartphones will not exist in the future. They absolutely will. I’m saying the Internet won’t be the all-encompassing lifestyle it is today.
The Internet might not occupy people’s mind-space any more than the electrical wires in your house, or the design of your refrigerator. People have no more time to give, and the unprecedented amount of attention we already give the Internet is negatively affecting us all. A simple cultural shift in preferences, as the world has experienced in many other areas, might be all it takes for the younger generation to move on, or to demand devices that require less attention to run things in the background.
If people adopted the growing scientific consensus that social media is unhealthy, we might see a decline in social media usage comparable to the 68% reduction in smoking observed between 1965 and 2018. Watch the 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner with modern eyes, and notice how the hardest part to accept isn’t the flying cars, it’s the ubiquity of smoking. Behaviors can change dramatically across generations, and there’s no reason to believe our way of life is permanent.
In a few decades, our era’s infatuation with smartphones might be compared to baby boomers’ infatuation with V8-engined muscle cars or television, or the older generation’s need to own full silverware and China dinnerware sets. Products, values, and ways of living come and go, no matter how permanent they may seem.
Today’s practice of buying smartphones or tablets for children so they can watch TikTok videos might soon be taboo. Recall how people used to feed alcoholic “gripe water” to infants, or leave loaded guns laying around a house full of children? That was normal in an era before people understood the risks.
Future parents might strive to shield their kids from screen time for as long as possible by NOT buying them a computer. The buzz in their time might be about reality-based skills being the trend of the future, and how kids who don’t interact with others, develop friendships, spend time in nature, build little organizations, or engage in physical play will fall behind.
Millions of high-paying jobs will be available to those who can focus their attention, build deep interpersonal relationships, avoid anxiety and depression, think skeptically, cultivate a real-world reputation, and apply time in productive ways. Those who reject the values of our Gullible Generation will likely become the leaders and heroes of the future, even if many others remain mired in the ways of the past.
The historic role of the Gullible Generation may be to provide the Pandemic Generation something ridiculous, misery-inducing, and clearly unsustainable to rebel against.
Things change, especially when they have to. We cannot accurately predict the future, but we can at least know that limitation with certainty.