“Social media only works as a business model if it consumes users’ time and attention day after day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we did perfectly well without social media, for the entire known history of the human race with itself. It needs to replace those activities with time spent on social media. So that addiction is actually the point.”
“This is what some of our brightest minds have been doing with their time for years now. Designing these platforms, designing apps that integrate with them. I mean, what else might they have been doing?”
I was pleased to hear Senator Hawley emphasize these issues of addictiveness and value because they echo the concerns I heard from the vast majority of people I met during the book tour for Digital Minimalism.
It’s important to hear public figures cite these problems, because as I’ve written before, much of the media coverage on the big tech backlash focuses on what I call legal-techno geek issues, such as privacy, data portability, and content moderation.
These are important topics, and if you’re a journalist, or a social media personality, or an academic, or a political think tank type, they can be quite exciting to debate and nuance. They also have the advantage of being addressable by big swing legislative fixes, which are satisfying to imagine. (Indeed, in the recent New Yorker review of Digital Minimalism, the reviewer’s main criticism was that I avoided suggesting such systemic fixes.)
But for the average person — who doesn’t host a YouTube interview show, or cover politics, or publish research papers on network privacy — the legal-techno geek issues are not why they’re uneasy about their devices.
The mathematical details of this paper are dense, but on Rogan’s show, Ravikant summarizes its core idea: firms hire more people instead of contracting out the needed work when the transaction costs associated with setting up external relationships are high, making it easier and cheaper to do the work internally.
As Ravikant notes, the internet is driving down these transaction costs as it reduces the friction required for an entrepreneur to find and hire the right contractor for a specific task. Coase’s theory predicts therefore that businesses will become smaller and more people will migrate from stable positions to a freelance lifestyle.
I was intrigued by this discussion because it overlaps with some concepts that I’ve been developing as I work on a new book about email and the future of work.
He revealed that he started a daily poetry reading habit to “sharpen the faculties that stare at the world,” with the aim to “bulwark my attention against the assault waged by my phone.”
He soon rediscovered the work of Mary Oliver, who died earlier this year. In reading her final poetry collection, Upstream, Foer was surprised to discover that Oliver helped him confront the very forces that had driven him to his bulwark-building poetry habit in the first place.
“The costs of allowing our attention to be commandeered remain drastically understated,” Foer writes, and though this might not have been her specific intention, Oliver’s “poetry captures its spiritual costs.”
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