In 1969, I was 11 years old, and I remember wanting to jump off a dock in the Thousand Islands where my parents and I vacationed one Labor Day weekend. It was so hot. I did not have my bathing suit on, just a top and shorts, and my mom said, “Take off your shirt and jump.” I couldn’t do it. I had already internalized a self-consciousness about my physical being. I had just started to develop. Already I had the awareness that something was happening to alter my perceptions of how to look, act and be at this otherwise tender age, especially with boys, some of whom had been my friends as long as I could remember. And with those perceptions, with that self-consciousness, came a sense of embarrassment and even something akin to shame.
Reading about the adverse experience of vulnerable young women and social networking, I am not sure much has changed. Society continues to set young women into various degrees of anxiety about body image. What intrigues me about these discussions, however, is how much we do not talk about those social influences that exist outside and apart from technology. Larger social forces set the context of unanswered questions and unaddressed concerns for young women. The sites exacerbate body image anxieties, but they do not create them. Technology, whether it is social networking or AI, becomes the target for a very complex mix of societal dynamics.
No doubt, technology plays a role. When the Meta whistle-blower Frances Haugen described in testimony before Congress how Mark Zuckerberg blew her off when she explained that Instagram acted in deleterious ways toward vulnerable teenage girls, I was as disgusted as I was not surprised by his failure to respond. The possessor of a preternatural teenage mentality himself, he could not be expected to think differently. For all his Caesar Augustus self-image, Mark Zuckerberg is a standard product of his adolescent male upbringing in a society that still, many decades later, has done very little to make teenage years for young women easy. Before we start setting rules that might truly impede innovation and handicap our ability to compete globally, let us be sure we know what influences are causes, in what contributing degree or kind and what are the concomitant effects on vulnerable young women and in some cases young men too.
I am not optimistic. If on matters of technology-influenced concerns, say the most benign of them all—a national data breach law—we cannot get federal consensus in Congress, can you imagine how anyone would be willing to take on the complexities of male and female teen-age socialization? I can hear the corporate campaign money members of Congress now: “What had you done to do deserve … a school shooting, a drug or alcohol dependency, an eating disorder, suicidal ideation, a teen-age pregnancy or responsibility for one?” The list goes on and on …
I am all for personal responsibility, but we now live in a society that has become increasingly allergic to sociological dynamics. Those dynamics are too hard to look at. They bring up too many ghosts. They expose feelings and behaviors that bring us sadness, disgust and regret. Better not to look. Just find the villain and knock him/her/it off. Critical race theory. Transgender adolescents. New technology. I am old enough now to remember how Bush père used Willie Horton and race in the 1988 presidential campaign, Bush Junior pounced on gays in 2004, and of course Trump used migrants in 2016. My bet is that we will hear a whole lot less about the issues that animate media today after the election in 2024. They will not be resolved. They simply will not be pumped up like helium balloons rising for distinctly political purposes.
Technological issues, too, will remain. I will be curious to watch how hypocritical we will, or will not, be to attack with vitriol the CEO of a foreign-owned and wildly successful social networking site for all the world to see when so much of our own U.S. terrain grossly fails privacy and security controls. Or what, exactly, will be done about section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Even though simple reform is available. A content moderation policy for every platform without substance except due process (i.e. consistency) and user means of communicating with platforms to address harms such as nonconsensual disclosure is all that is necessary. Still, Congress will do nothing. Too much money breathes into our representatives’ coffers from Big Tech that wants no regulation whatsoever, even lightweight and common-sense fixes.
I am intrigued by the targeting of technology, especially social networking and now AI, by politicians and commentators alike. In 2017, through the University of Massachusetts Bepress Scholar Works, I published a book about information technology in higher education. The title is Humanity’s Canvas. As we did with the internet, we are now doing with social networking and AI: throwing our humanity on a canvas and then we are shocked at what we see. In fact, we are so shocked that we must find villains to explain it.
We need to hold the mirror up to ourselves. If we do, we may see a very different picture. And might we also enjoy the benefit of that exercise. After a quarter century of “technology exceptionalism,” we may place technology in its proper place. It plays a significant role, one that should be addressed as neither hero nor villain, but like so many other social, market and legal factors, the subject of much-needed public policy.