Culture and smartphones

The most intriguing critique of Johnathon Haidt’s grand thesis that smartphones are creating something akin to a social collapse, is that we’re not seeing the same phenomenon outside of the English-speaking world. Derek Thompson has a long, complex explication thereof in America’s Top Export May Be Anxiety:

Put it all together—diagnostic inflation in medicine; prevalence inflation in media; negativity inflation in news—and one gets the distinct sense that Americans might be making themselves sick with pessimism, anxiety, and gloom. But that’s not all. Just as the U.S. has long been the global economy’s chief cultural exporter—from Coca-Cola to Mickey Mouse—it’s conceivable that we are disseminating throughout the English-speaking world a highly neurotic and individualistic approach to mental health, which is raising the salience of anxiety and depression for young people spending hours every day marinating in English-speaking media.

Thompson concludes:

I don’t want to let smartphones and social media off the hook here, nor do I think that my anxiety-inflation theory is a strong objection to Jonathan Haidt’s thesis in The Anxious Generation. Haidt himself has written about the content young people consume on social media, including the rise of a “reverse-CBT” ideology, which encourages catastrophic interpretations of normal thoughts and feelings.

The article that’s linked in that quote is really worth a read as well, which in turn links to several more fascinating reads. The short of it, a truly disempowering ideology, the reverse of cognitive behavioral therapy, has emerged as the defining ethos of English-speaking spocial media. We’re all fragile victims, we have no agency, and we’re all suffering some sort of trauma. Bullocks, of course. Haidt, quoting Greg Lukianoff sums up it:

They came to believe that they were fragile and would be harmed by books, speakers, and words, which they learned were forms of violence (Great Untruth #1).

They came to believe that their emotions—especially their anxieties—were reliable guides to reality (Great Untruth #2).

They came to see society as comprised of victims and oppressors—good people and bad people (Great Untruth #3).

There’s a bit about how Tumblr was the petri dish for this sort of thinking before it spread to the mainstream, largely in opposition to places like 4chan.

This all seems distinctly plausible, and it’s remarkable how much our social norms, particularly the philosophical assumptions underlining them, have changed in the span of a few decades. While these changes have likely sprung from good intentions, it’s hard to conclude that they have resulted in a net positive for society.