The status quo gap

Everything in America seems polarized right now, so perhaps it’s no surprise that innovation is as well. In Silicon Valley, a small fraction of the population wants to push every technical boundary, transform every industry, re-imagine every job, and re-engineer the limits of life itself. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the country takes solace in tradition, and seeks to preserve the way things are.

That’s the theme of my column in the latest issue of HBR, about a few new books and a film, all in one way or another about innovation. Here’s the gist:

Wolfe focuses on PayPal’s founder, Peter Thiel, and a cohort of teenagers selected by his foundation to forgo college and start companies, but she also lets us peek into a variety of tech subcultures—from seasteaders to polygamists to those who, like Thiel, chase immortality through investments in life-extending technology. The suggestion isn’t that these pursuits are inherently flawed; it’s that they stem from a single-minded desire to push boundaries—technological and social.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, Cowen argues, most “Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether.”

The column covers The Circle, The Upstarts, Valley of the Gods, and The Complacent Class. But my deadline was in February, and since then I’ve read a couple books that feel relevant to this theme.

I wrote recently about A Culture of Growth, in which economic historian Joel Mokyr argues that the connection between intellectuals and artisans helped propel the Industrial Revolution. The cultural divide between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world doesn’t quite map onto Mokyr’s divide, but his broader point about the economic importance of connections between different parts of society surely applies here. The innovation sector works best when it’s attached to the rest of society — to scientists, intellectuals, politicians, and the public. When the divide between the innovative sector and the rest of society grows too large, bad things can happen.

A version of this shows up in Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, which anticipates basically all of our current debate over artificial intelligence stealing jobs. In the book, the managers and the engineers are separated from the public, physically, as well as ideologically. Neither side ends up looking good, and the ending is not one we should hope for.

Evidence that too much social media is making us unhappy

We published a piece at HBR this past week on Facebook and well-being, by two researchers writing about their recent study:

Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.

My view on this has changed over the years, based on both research and experience. In 2012, I was skeptical about an Atlantic piece saying Facebook was making people lonely. It seemed more likely that lonely people were more heavily using Facebook. By 2013, I was at least willing to entertain the idea that social media was bad for us. By 2014, I was willing to say that “it depends,” and to acknowledge that the balance of evidence might be shifting.

Of course, it still depends. The impact of social media can be positive or negative, depending on a host of factors. But what if we’re just communicating with each other too much? At best, it seems social media is running into diminishing marginal returns; at worst, we’re on the other side of an upside-down-U. The internet lets us communicate with each other. As it spreads, people communicate more — email, then Facebook, then Twitter, etc. — and at first welfare improves. Then either welfare plateaus (diminishing returns), or it actually starts going down (upside-down-U).

Sure enough, the research we covered suggests something similar:

Overall our results suggests that well-being declines are also matter of quantity of use rather than only quality of use. If this is the case, our results contrast with previous research arguing that the quantity of social media interaction is irrelevant, and that only the quality of those interactions matter.

There’s some forthcoming research on the benefit to consumers from various online services. I’ll hopefully cover it when it’s out, but at a glance it suggests diminishing returns: the benefits of email are far larger than from Snapchat, for instance.

That’s starting to look like the best case scenario. Either social media is fine, but each platform isn’t much better than the one that came before, or it’s harmful, at least for the people who use it most.