I am more and more convinced that the weight we put on the structural implications of technology and its deleterious effects on us misses the mark. The loss of civic virtues and institutions that had taught forms of self-control, gave community, and more have played a huge role.
This role is often unstated in technology studies. But one reason why people attempt to find community online is because they cannot find it in real life. Everyone is isolated, lonely, living in cities that tend to further this isolation, prevent large families from existing, etc.
Without the traditional mediating institutions of clubs, churches, fraternities, schools, and other such places, people gravitate towards what’s left: social media and community online.
Further, these institutions valourized self-control and real-life community to curb negative impulses and emotions (in various ways). But now we lack those. And so we accelerate towards lack of impulse control.
FDR famously said that the only thing we need to fear is fear itself. Now, why might he say that? Well, I am not sure of his exact source, but this line of thinking crosses 2,300+ years of moral and civic temperance—the fear of something in our mind is greater than in reality (a stoic doctrine).
The point is: we had these inherited ideas and institutions like the family which could cement them and support people through their traumas. With these gone or mostly gone, what’s left? And further: without learning how temperance tempers all of life, why limit our use of tech?+
Everyone wants to criticize the structure of tech, its algorithms and its intent. But what about our rhythms of life and our intent to use technology? Certainly, we get distracted by tech. But distracted BY WHAT? We have to be tracted towards some goal to be distracted from it.
Yet what goal do we have? Answer: have fun, make enough money to live, buy a car. Okay, so technology then is not a distraction it’s what you have traction for. So tech is defined implicitly as a good. How can we say it distracts us then?
Okay, from work. It distracts from work. Fine, why are you working? Why are you living? Do you work so that you can use technology in the spaces between work and sleep? If so, it’s living your version of the good life to scroll. But what if there is something more?
Purpose self-control towards that purpose is what we miss, and we have no families, churches, and other institutions that encourage and help us toward our goals anymore. They are good as a societal norm. With many exceptions, of course. I am thinking at the societal level
The point is: technology can kill you but it cannot harm you (to rephrase Socrates). It harms you when you let it harm you. Deep purpose, profound self-control for that purpose, and finding family or church or community to encourage you along the path—that’s what we need.
The tech is bad argument has its moments, and I agree with much of it. Don’t mishear me. But I am specifying that we have lost what it means to be a society. We no longer live in a liberal democracy with mediating institutions between individuals and the state to support us and ensure our liberty.
Those existed. Now they have declined. What’s left is a community wasteland (see Nisbet), and we increasingly try to get the state to fill in the gaps in mental health and whatever else we need.
Point: get married, have kids, go to church, get a purpose in life, dedicate yourself wholly to self-control and self-discipline and find communities that encourage you in these. Then use tech however you CHOOSE. But the key is: how YOU choose.