An episode of the series Black Mirror called “Nosedive” involves a young woman obsessed with living in a luxurious apartment complex. In order to qualify to live there, she has to succeed in what might be described as a Facebook on steroids environment, in which every encounter with another person is given a social media score via the use of what appears to be a super smartphone device. In order to succeed at just about anything, including finding a good place to live or a decent car to rent, you have to maintain a good rating.
As the title of the episode suggests, it does not go well for the young woman, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. In the end, she’s been jailed and stripped of technology. While being imprisoned might not seem a good outcome, in this case it’s a liberating victory because she’s been freed of her technological shackles.
The episodes of Black Mirror, which has been around for several years and can now be found on Netflix, tend to aim speculative fiction not at the distant future, of, say, a hundred years from now, but at what might be just around the corner. As such they should have a particular appeal to young people, who will inherit the world and spend their lives reckoning with technology that is hard to forecast or even imagine.
While warnings about technology have long been the fare of science fiction and its visions of the future, we seem to have enough to keep our hands full in the present.
The advent of smartphones, for example, has led to a world of worries, including distracted driving, which is on the rise, but also fears for young people and health concerns like depression and addiction. Just earlier this year a study was released with the title “Decreases in Psychological Well-Being Among American Adolescents After 2012 and Links to Screen Time During the Rise of Smartphone Technology.” The study found that once smartphone use reached half the U.S. population, in 2012, happiness started to drop. It found that psychological well-being decreased the more time was spent in front of a screen, on the internet, social media, etc.
Those concerns elevated when Facebook announced a plan to offer a messaging app for children as young as 6. “Turn Off Messenger Kids, Health Experts Plead to Facebook,” read a New York Times headline in January. “The opposition to Facebook’s app adds to growing societal concerns over digital media and devices,” reads the article. “Some big Apple investors called on the company this month to work harder to make the iPhone less addictive, and some former Facebook employees have warned about how effectively the service hooks users.”
Then, of course, there’s Cambridge Analytica and the gathering of personal information from 87 million Facebook users that was used to influence elections.
During two days in front of lawmakers in Washington this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the company’s handling of private data. “I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here,” he said.
While that may sound reassuring, there wasn’t much else that was. “… after two days of congressional testimony, what seemed clear was how little Congress seems to know about Facebook, much less what to do about it,” reported the Associated Press.
“Zuckerberg faces ‘Grandpa’ questions” was the headline in the Record-Journal, evoking images of children showing their grandparents how to Skype or use email. And while that’s amusing, what’s not is the limited understanding. The average age of the senators who questioned Zuckerberg, who is 33 and started Facebook out of his dorm room, is 62, with several in their 80s, noted the AP.
Lawmakers have many experts to guide them, and Congress could take action. Zuckerberg said regulation of social media companies was “inevitable,” but what form that might take is uncertain. And it’s worth noting that while technology moves fast, Congress does not.
Many of the articles I’ve read about the growing concern for children offer parental advice: spend time with your kids, monitor activities, limit time in front of the screen.
As for the rest of us? Stand by.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org