At long last I’m finally going to start on my posts on this topic to use someone else’s thinking as a seed for my own ideas. Of course the other people are experts and follow scientific protocols of actually getting evidence and only reaching conclusions the facts support and then being subject to peer review (an exemplary methodology) but as I’m not a professional (merely a lot of life experience with digital technology) I’m free to be more speculative. So, dear reader, listen to the experts with facts, but maybe I can at least tickle your imagination.
I debated about whether I should attribute the bits of posts I’ll elaborate. It’s not like this is a debate or even back-and-forth discussion. This is purely one-sided and therefore not subject to intellectual checks-and-balances. So if I’m going to accidentally misrepresent someone or unfairly contradict them maybe I should hide them behind shield of anonymity. But, OTOH, quoting someone, without attribution, is also intellectually dishonest so I think I’ll follow convention of attribution. So apologies in advance to those I quote for any offense I give.
So I’ll start with Dr. Tracy Dennis’s earliest post. There is a lot of meat in this post for provoking many thought threads, but I’ll start with this one, about what we might speculate is the effect on teens of social media:
The short answer to these types of questions is: We have no idea. Scientists know next to nothing. Policy makers are shooting in the dark. Pundits and talking heads and techno-sages have a lot to say, but no basis upon which to draw conclusions. Yet these questions are incredibly important given the growing ubiquity of social media.
Dr. Dennis implies: a) we aren’t doing any rigorous studies, b) social media is potentially not just harmless and thus deserves study, and, c) we should and can get some data, and maybe find out what effect there is. Cheers! The first two I hardily agree, but the third, not so sure – is it really possible to learn anything useful, or more importantly, provable (assuming you’d now want to regulate social media). You might recall in one of my earlier posts the smart move the nascent OTA (Office of Technology Assessment) did was to study whether it could actually do technology assessments. So while I’d certainly encourage Dr. Dennis and others to try I do think it’s a tough assignment.
But what’s going to be my main digression is why haven’t we already done this. We release a potentially hazardous technology on virtually ever teen in the world without so much as any impact study! Would we do this with a new drug for pimples? Would we do this with a new cosmetic? Would we do this with a new artificial sweetner?
Of course not. Somehow we’ve learned that chemicals we put in, or even on, our bodies need some modicum of testing, subject of course to the political positions of those who oppose any, even sensible regulation, since who cares, the market will sort it out after we kill or damage enough kids. No, fortunately, we still think the safety of our kids, or all population, is worth at least some level of testing.
I’ve been part of the geek high-tech culture my entire life so I know, that not for an instant, did Mark think about anything but how to maximize the growth and thus IPO valuation and personal fame of Facebook (and so with Steve and Bill and Larry and anyone else). I recall a line I like from the first Jurassic Park movie, to the effect – “you were so busy figuring out how to do it you never stopped to think if you should do it”. So we just assume, both out of ignorance (the public) and greed (SilliValley), that social media or other digital technology would surely be harmless and, boy, is it fun to invent and, boy, is it fun to get those IPO zillions.
And what about the early days of extracted or synthetic opiates. No restrictions on sale (at the very same time there was heavy social discrimination toward Asian (but not upper class white) opium use), no fears of side-effects, widely sold. How many years before we realized the adverse side-effects and finally did something. Or, one of our other favorites, tobacco. The absurdity of all those cigarette company CEOs declaring nicotine is not addictive (as former addict, I’ll attest they’re wrong). How many people died or were seriously degraded before we wised up? But at least we asked some questions at the time and today consider our lack of attention almost criminal.
But does testing really work. Everyone (or at least those over 50 and all scientists) knows about thalidomide, but what about Cox-2 inhibitors (aka Celebrex and Vioxx). I got really excited about Cox-2 inhibitors because: a) my dad had a lot of arthritis pain and had stomach reactions to existing NSAIDs, and, b) my interest (and a little knowledge) of molecular biology made the idea of highly targeted, invented rather than discovered, pharmaceuticals sound a lot more like my type of engineering than the hit-and-miss witch-doctoring of previous drug discovery. These drugs sailed through their trials and foretold the first blockbuster sales. And then they were released. And then some alarming side-effects showed up in mass usage, which I initially dismissed (conventional NSAIDs have some positive side-effect of being a bit cardio-protective and COX-2 inhibitors just took that side-effect away and thus some people died, or so I thought, until more facts came out). These drugs were not a thalidomide from the dark ages; these drugs were developed in a era of sophisticated biological and medical technology and reasonable regulation. Yet they still had to be withdrawn from the market and were subject to considerable litigation (ongoing?).
So even with a long history of developing protocols for evaluating drugs a category of drugs sneaks through that had some issues. And, unfortunately, as a statins-user I see more and more questions of these every day, plus some drugs withdrawn. Since I was relatively young when my doctor wanted me on statins I studied them, as best I could. What was missing in my view was not lack of solid evidence that they did what they claimed to do (adjust cholesterol levels) but that this actually would do me any good, as in live longer. Yes there were studies that cholesterol was bad and statins worked, but (since it takes a long time to follow people over their life) any real evidence that put who take statins and control their cholesterol live longer or healthier. If you’ve ever do anything with science and/or technology you know cause-and-effect can sometimes be subtle. Is high cholesterol the problem (and thus lowering it will help you) or is it merely an effect of something else, like some degree of liver malfunctions. So are statins treating a symptom or a root cause?
The point is that in a field, pharmacology, where we know a lot about how to evaluate candidate medications we still don’t always get it right. Because it’s complicated. And now we’re looking at a technology that messes with brains, with the possible threat that interests Dr. Dennis of potentially impacting them for life due to interference with normal development processes in their teen years. Let’s assume the Frankenstein case and so in 30-40 years we find a larger portion of kids who were on Facebook, before it got banned as dangerous, became psychopaths and the body count from Facebook is worse than Vioxx. Oh good, how much damage done before we realize the mess. And then, of course, what will be the denialist movement when we discover social media makes monsters of our kids given today we now know our energy technology is going to kill us but our response is to call scientists liars.
So don’t tell me it’s absurd to think a smartphone and a website can hurt us. We may find some current teen behavior irritating, but that’s been true for all generations, so we think it’s just a phase and they’ll pass through it. Or we think if it gets out of hand a little pressure will work. Or it’s a fad and it will pass, without long-term consequence. One blessing of texting was the elimination of a far more obnoxious issue of excessive voice calling. After an interval of semi-retirement I returned to working which required frequent air travel. I was amazed at how almost every single person felt the need to announce their departure to multiple people, but worse, within milliseconds of the flight attendants announcing phones were allowed the ringing of phones and simultaneous chatter of a planeload of people thinking they had to tell multiple someone’s they’d arrived. Geez, a couple of hours out of touch and it’s urgent to make all these calls! So at least texts eliminated most of that since the passengers can text and tweet and facebook and foursquare every second of their life, but mostly quietly and so without disturbing me with their inane conversations.
But my real notion here is that we’re under-estimating digital gadgets because most of us don’t really know anything about them and just assume they’re totally harmless, they’re just a mindless machine. Sure, computers are everywhere and now so are smartphones. And if there is some junk science scare story about phones being close to your brain and causes cancer, that we’ll listen to. And a few people know carpal tunnel is connected with excess repetitive data entry motion. And back in one of my early inventions we learned the first color CRT displays could potentially cause retinal cancer due to excessive X-rays from the higher voltages in the CRT. But these are the types of hazards we understand because we tie them to chemicals. And we love to have scifi of the evil computers that take over because what a great villain they make – we’ll even text people about the latest machines-against-us movie.
But we just automatically assume, what could be the harm of constant connectivity? What could be the harm of spilling your private life in public places? [I can’t imagine why it didn’t occur to anyone that FindFriendsNearby was the perfect tool for any kind of stalker]. What could be the harm of incessant messages through an inanimate object instead of actually speaking to the person sitting in front of you? Why do we even need to be talking that much at all? Are teens now more depressed because they only have 350 “friends” instead of 700? Nope, a gadget couldn’t screw us up – hey, kids (sorta) survived TV.
So Dr. Dennis is right, we don’t know. And worse, we’re not even looking, at least very much. And worse still, maybe even looking won’t be enough. Some Luddite can forecast doom-and-gloom and be just as wrong as the “visionary” (like Kurzweil and his singularity nonsense). And it’s time to realize that digital technology has reached the point where it could be in the same category as pharmaceuticals, not just a hunk of plastic and glass and silicon, but something that does get inside us, in the most complicated and vital organ of all. So let’s get some study going before the Tea Baggers decide this is another example of gubmint run amok that they have to stop.
And we need to recognize this soon because we’re barreling forward even faster with machines that “know” us. It’s a little spooky to me (while simultaneously being useful) that the new Samsung phone is looking at my face with its beady little camera eye in order to dim the screen or not (how long until it recognizes my experience and starts trying to cheer me). The Japanese have a real generational problem. Whereas in the U.S. taking care of old farts is major demand for people and our only problem is how to pay for it, in Japan there simply are not enough young to take care of the old, no matter what the pay. So they actively want robots that will be at least as useful as companion dogs. And I suspect when there is such an economic incentive there will be positive result. Even look at Raj on The Big Bang loving Siri because that’s the woman he can talk to without alcohol. Companionship to older people is already a bit of the function of social media. My mom has an absolutely wonderful hired companion but that’s an incredibly labor-intense activity and very few people can do it well, esp. for the low pay. So social media is nothing compared to the first AI empathetic robots. And we’ll welcome those without thinking of their side-effects either.
So even more than a study of Facebook or robots, I think we need to develop the methodology of how to study digital technology and its effects on people. We didn’t learn how to do drug development and trials over night and despite the occasional flaw that system works reasonably well but it’s taken a lot of tuning. I still find it amusing that I don’t see absolutely convincing scientific evidence that SSRI’s work (have therapeutic, as opposed to neurotransmitter, effects) and again, like statins, those of drugs whose action is easy to study (boost serotonin receptors or not). Dr. Dennis can’t stick probes in the teens’ brains and measure their dopamine levels and even if she could what would that show? So how do you actually study this, esp. given that the effects could take years or decades to manifest themselves. There is a essentially zero in-vitro testing we can do and animal models are probably completely irrelevant. So we’re doing this experiment on us because we can’t study it any of other way. And imagine if we find some awful effect, how hard will it be to take on litigious Apple, the richest company in the world, who would certainly be joined by Google and Microsoft and Facebook for a denialist effort that might put Karl Rove and the Koch’s to shame. The global warming methodology is very sound and evolution is so totally demonstrated yet a few Citizens United propaganda dollars have turned the majority of the public against those. So some loosey-goosey typical psychological study methodology will never withstand the assault of billions spent by the special interests. So a rock solid methodology is even more important than a particular set of results.
So it’s a battle between the most complex organ we have against the most complex technology we’re inventing. That’s going to take some study.