Salvo 07.05.2023 4 minutes

The Tech Trajectory

Plexusheart – landscape

Big Tech poses a formidable challenge to maintaining self-government in the digital age.

Big Tech has created a digital environment for humans that has been designed as a substitute for real community. Technologies have been tailored for each age group: toddlers are mesmerized by iPads; teenagers are addicted to video games, phones, and social media; and adults turn to online dating platforms and pornography.

The individuals who follow this tech trajectory are left unmoored and unable to form in-person relationships. They are the anxious Gen Zers who question if they will ever find someone to marry and raise children with, and the dejected Millennials who fear their window has already closed. This is not a coincidence. The life Big Tech is constructing for us has been developed in conjunction with, and reinforces, the ideology of “expressive individualism”—the notion that our inner selves are our true selves and that our physical bodies are secondary.

Starting with handheld devices and mobile apps, Big Tech invites toddlers to become lifelong users of screens. Many applications and programs designed for children are manipulative, often exploiting psychological vulnerabilities. The unrivaled stimulation kids experience through screens, in school or at home, encourages addiction.

According to Rebecca Rialon Berry, a professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU, “the intense sounds, colors and rapid movement of digital content can make it much more immersive and entrancing than the real world—and therefore much more difficult to disengage from.” These apps also regularly utilize progression systems that reward children with “points” or “virtual stickers” for their in-game accomplishments, resulting in heightened dopamine releases that encourage children to continue or repeat the behavior.  

This is deliberate. As highlighted by Dimitri Christakis, Director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, “the purveyors of games and apps are very well aware they are monetizing our children’s attention.”

Providing our children with electronic devices deprives them of opportunities to engage in physical play that helps them become comfortable in and learn the limits of their bodies. Developing this embodied knowledge at a young age is crucial, and a lack of it influences behavior in adolescence into adulthood. According to Jordan Peterson and Joseph Flanders, those who have not been socialized by age four “tend to be aggressive for the rest of their lives. Chronically aggressive children, then adults, lack empathy, are suspicious, narcissistic and self-centered, and are characterized by inappropriate and brittle high self-esteem.”

Big Tech continues to disembody and confuse adolescents through phones, videos games, and social media, which make young people anxious and depressed. As Jonathan Haidt has demonstrated, social media is particularly disastrous for teenage girls, who are apt to compare their lives and bodies to carefully modified versions of others and inevitably come up wanting.

Once again, these platforms are addictive by design. Instagram and TikTok utilize features such as infinite scrolling and user-specific algorithms intended to captivate their users and lock them into feedback loops. Moderating use of such platforms is difficult for any user but is especially so for one whose brain is not fully developed. Worse still, the personalized content that dominates users’ social media feeds is only made possible by the constant monitoring of their digital behavior, which produces personal data that informs the algorithm’s recommendations. This dynamic enhances the addictive nature of the platform, thereby compounding the challenge of relinquishing engagement with the device.

Parents could prevent their teenagers from using social media, but doing so comes at an increasingly high cost. If all your teenage daughter’s friends are on social media—as they almost certainly are—she will feel cut out of her circle and suffer social exclusion.  

In the final stage of the tech trajectory, some adults, entirely dejected and defeated, lose themselves in a world of virtual pornography. Others, more hopeful, turn to online dating apps and websites. Gen Zers and Millennials get on a dating app (or several) to look for a relationship, but quickly get off because the experience is mediocre or frustrating. Typically, they can’t find anything but hookups. As the cognitive overload wears off and they fail to meet anyone in-person, however, singles once again turn to their preferred platform(s). Many go through the cycle multiple times. Some give up entirely.

Again, this is by design. Though there is an abundance of dating apps, all of them share a common goal: Get users to return to the app. With a design that emulates the psychology of a slot machine, dating apps create the impression that a lucky match may be only one swipe away, even when the user is on a losing streak. Using these apps can have negative psychological effects. As a recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found, the use of dating apps can lead to “loneliness, dissatisfaction with life, and feeling excluded from the world.”

Big Tech companies have spent decades developing platforms and devices tailored for each stage of life which encourage an addictive dependency on technology. Despite their promises to enhance human connection, it’s more clear than ever that Big Tech is driving us further apart by removing users from the real world and that Americans are being conditioned to use tech in a passive, servile way. This issue is about self-government in the digital age.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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