Standing Up to Technology – Cal Newport

In the fall of 2016, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that pushed back against the conventional wisdom that social media was important for your career. “In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable,” I wrote. “Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable.” Aided in large part by an attention-catching headline — “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It” — my piece touched a nerve, soon hitting the top of the paper’s Most Emailed chart.

This sudden prominence generated a fierce backlash. I was invited on a radio program only to be ambushed by two surprise guests invited to refute my ideas. A well-known communication professor began emailing me invitations to debate. One online publication described my call to use less social media as a call to disenfranchise marginalized peoples. (I’m still trying to figure that one out.) Perhaps most notably, two weeks later, the Times took the unusual step of publishing a response op-ed — “Don’t Quit Social Media. Put it to Work for Your Career Instead” — that went through the main points of my piece one by one, explain why each was wrong.

In my most recent essay for The New Yorker, published earlier today, I revisit this incident from seven years ago. As I write, my distinct impression of this period was that of being targeted by a cultural immune reaction: “The idea of stepping away altogether from powerful new tools like social media just wasn’t acceptable; readers needed to be assured that such advice could be safely ignored.”

In 2016, American culture was gripped by what the late social critic Neil Postman called a “technopoly”; a social order in which we fully capitulate to the technological:

“[In a technopoly] innovation and increased efficiency become the unchallenged mechanisms of progress, while any doubts about the imperative to accommodate the shiny and new are marginalized. ‘Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World,’ Postman writes. ‘It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.’ Technopoly, he concludes, ‘is totalitarian technocracy.’”

This was the setting in which my call to cut back on social media was so thoroughly and immediately rejected. It represented a glitch in the technopolic matrix that needed immediate repair.

The goal of my new essay, however, was not mere negative nostalgia. It goes on to highlight a more recent positive trend that has been largely overlooked: the age of technopoly seems to be ending. Increasingly we see resistance to the blind acceptance of all technological progress as inevitable, whether this be in the form of the Writers Guild of America banning certain uses of artificial intelligence in the creation of television shows, or the Surgeon General suggesting that maybe we should just stop letting kids use social media.

I recommend that you read the full essay for specific details, but my general conclusion is that a new, more critical engagement with tools that I call techno-selectionism is becoming more viable. As 2023 rapidly gives way to 2024, maybe we’ll see this new philosophy really began to spread. I’ll be doing my part to help it along.

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