Social Media: Our Technological Opioid Crisis

social media

Ned Ludd, leader of the Luddites (Wikimedia Commons)

By Marshall Cartwright

While commuting to class recently in Paris, I sat on the train watching a parade of dancing thumbs march in unison through their respective digital playgrounds.

In 2018, this is an everyday observation for people all around the world. In the United States, an astounding 68 percent of Americans use Facebook. Following the recent disclosure that personal data of some 50 million Facebook users had been misused, many are joining the #DeleteFacebook movement.

But not unlike Americans who threatened to leave the United States to move to Canada after the 2016 presidential election, few will actually make good on the promise.

“Anything you want, you shouldn’t have,” my great-grandmother used to say. Such discipline carried her to her 104th birthday, but she had to give up alcohol, cigarettes, coffee and chocolate – all habits she loved.

Studies have found that social media can be just as addictive as sugar, tobacco, fast food or alcohol. Instead of going cold turkey, doesn’t it make more sense to stay and fix what is broken?

Perhaps since the average social media user will spend 5.4 years of their life on social media platforms, we should all check ourselves into digital rehab right now!

Most us have no idea how many hours we spend online.

As someone who studies new media and the philosophy of technology, I think it necessary to draw a line in the sand and to share a rule of thumb – or rule for thumbs.

When looking at technology, we must remember that it is an extension of ourselves. Just as cavemen used spears and farmers use plows, we use phones. In our modern world, digital tools are as essential to life and our livelihoods as the spear was to the caveman.

But we mustn’t let these extensions become tyrants of our desires, owners of our gaze or panopticons that we submit to willfully. The philosopher Michel Foucault described a prisoner in a panopticon in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish: “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.”

It is hard to know if Foucault foresaw the nefarious uses of the Internet and social media 30 years before the first YouTube video was uploaded. But his words are eerily accurate today.

Never before have we been able to communicate so freely, organize, advocate, stream movies and listen to an unlimited library of songs. In the “attention economy,” our time is valuable to so many who are seeking to monetize our attention. Yet most us have no idea how many hours we spend online.

Users of platforms like Facebook can experience addiction, anxiety and depression, according to research. In more and more suicides, cyber shame or bullying are contributing causes.

Never before have we been so divided and polarized — despite the prevalence of media that are supposed to bring us closer together and spur positive connections. We have to learn how to establish healthier relationships with these technologies.

Will we go on digital diets?

Legend has it that more than two centuries ago, Ned Ludd broke two textile looms, spurring British factory workers who feared that machines would take their jobs to revolt and similarly destroy knitting frames. Fast forward to 2018, and modern day “Luddites” are contemplating a similar fate for laptops and smartphones.

In a world where marketers, politicians and purveyors of alternative facts compete for our attention at every waking moment, we have to remind ourselves that time is money and we’re spending much of ours on digital fentanyl in what amounts to a technological opioid crisis.

“In capitalist society, spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole life-time of the masses into labour-time,” Karl Marx once observed. We are now giving over our spare time as labor to a whole new class of digital masters who profit from our attention.

Will we end up like the prisoners in Foucault’s panopticon? Are we going to destroy our machines like the Luddites of yore, or learn how to put ourselves on digital diets?

Use the digital tools at your disposal for truly productive purposes, but do not be fooled into thinking that an online or digital experience is a real experience.

And remember that almost everything you do in cyberspace is a commodity for someone else.

Smart people like former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris have been thinking about this and proposing how we can re-frame our e-addictions as Time Well Spent.

For my part, I have just a few months left in the City of Light, so I’ve had to put myself on a digital diet. While I won’t #DeleteFacebook, I’ve said au revoir to Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.

Time spent with friends walking along the Seine, dancing at a jazz club or arguing about philosophy at a café is only diminished if I try to capture the reality with a tweet or Instagram post.

I may end up with fewer pictures of my time here -– but I will have great memories. My goal is to look back on my time here, whistle “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” and mean it.


Marshall Cartwright is in his second-to-last year at New York University, studying this year in Paris. He is a reformed hockey player, now focusing on neuroscience, the Internet and how social media can do a better job of bringing us together instead of driving us apart.

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