Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives are Reshaping the American Dream
By Julie Albright, Prometheus Books, 2019, 368 pages.
If Freud hadn’t already chosen the title, Dr. Albright, a faculty member at the University of Southern California, might have used Civilization and Its Discontents. Or maybe she would have preferred Trollope’s milder The Way We Live Now. A metonym for this mostly depressing work can be found on page 279 where she announces “Eighty-four percent of teens now complain of back problems from being slumped over their phones.” Really, 5 kids out of 6? The footnote for this statement refers one to an article in the Guardian newspaper of November 24, 2014, where I searched in vain for the 84 percent. Or try this: “A third of infants under one year old are using smart phones or tablets before they can walk or talk [italics added]. “Using? What does this mean? Used as a teething ring? Going to her source in the Los Angeles Times, we find that these statistics come from a study based on a low income, minority community in Philadelphia. Albright never refers to the population from which this conclusion was taken. There is no indication of what exposure these children might have also had to television, dolls, or a plastic oral pacifier. The study says that 36 percent of the parents interviewed said that their child had “touched or scrolled a screen.” If this doesn’t alarm you perhaps Albright’s observation, taken from an article in the Huffington Post, that 20 percent of 18 to 29 year olds are using their smart phone “during sex.”
Albright’s book focuses on a group of Americans who live a life of digital hyper-connectivity. Mostly under age 50, this would include what are called Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979), Millennials (born between 1980 and 1999), and their offspring — some, as we have seen, still infants. A leitmotif of her book is that these “digital natives,” as she calls them have been untethered from the American Dream — a term she uses to describe the suburban house, car, a working dad with a long-term job, stay at home mom, 2 or 3 kids, church membership. The dream — which never functioned for African Americans — disappeared well before the age of the smart phone and Internet, a victim of the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s and the increasing aspirations of a growing group of educated women. More women have been getting bachelor’s degrees than men for over 37 years.
Albright’s natives are untethered from what she sees as the traditional signifiers of adulthood. They aren’t marrying, or having children; they eschew car ownership, don’t go to church. She calls them in one instance “generation rent.” That this renting has anything to do with a shortage of affordable housing in America is never noted. Her case histories involve people who couch surf, live in tiny apartments, or sometimes reside in a hut or trailer. Because their work — often consisting of short term assignments — involves the Internet, they don’t need a fixed base. Albright cites statistics showing that “the diffusion of Facebook between 2008 and 2010 has been correlated with an increase in the divorce rate in the same time period.” Looking at the actual article we find this disclaimer from the article’s authors, which casts her confident claim in a somewhat different light:
“However, the study does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship because that would require longitudinal and/or experimental data. In fact, as we explain below, a negative correlation between Facebook and marriage well-being can be explained by either a causal link or through self-selection. Therefore, the current study is a necessary, though not sufficient, step towards understanding the role of SNS [social network system], especially Facebook, in marriage well-being.”
In general, the book suffers from a tendency to conflate correlation with causation and, from what we have seen, to misuse sources. She blames the decreased enrollment in the Boy Scouts on hyper-connectivity, showing that enrollment was falling after the introduction of the smartphone by Apple in 2007. Unfortunately, the situation is more complicated — enrollment in the Boy Scouts of America peaked pre-Internet in 1970, began to fall, and has experienced some ups and downs without ever regaining its maximum. Membership appears to be in a slow decline but there is no way to assign this to connectivity.
Albright’s discussion of the Scouts is part of a larger argument — Americans are becoming untethered from nature. She may have a valid point here. Although visits to U.S. National Parks have been increasing, the number of different individuals attending the Parks has been shrinking. Visits to the Parks are buoyed by a smaller number of individuals visiting more often than in the past.
At times however she paints with a wide brush — blaming the tastes of digital natives for her bete-noir of fast foods and American supermarkets. Because the digital natives untether themselves from nature she avers they have lost an appreciation for naturally grown foods. She makes the inevitable invidious comparison between the Americans and the French — the latter having food stalls in cities overflowing with naturally local grown foods freshly brought in from the country. In fact, Americans have grown increasingly discerning in their tastes and consumption of food in the last generation. Much of this can be attributed to the supermarket chain Whole Foods which not only promotes sophisticated foods but also seeks to obtain produce and baked goods from local suppliers. Albright mentions this brand but dismisses them with the familiar pejorative, “whole paycheck,” implying that most Americans can’t afford to shop there. But in fact, the less expensive supermarkets have been emulating Whole Foods in pursuing the up-market shopper and offer many of the same inducements: local produce, bread and desserts baked in the store, coffee beans of every description. Moreover, while fast food chains were once dominated by McDonald’s we have seen in the last decade or two the growth of such outlets as Au Bon Pain, Pret a Manger, and Panera Bread whose products can be fresh and of high order. We are a long way from McDonald’s or, if you have distant memories, the Howard Johnson’s of a half century ago. One is on stronger ground in claiming that the so-called TV dinner of the 50’s is a salient example of untethering from nature, or perhaps the introduction of canned foods in the 19th century.
It is true that we are experiencing a technological revolution — no one would dispute that. But the book lacks historical perspective. What is unique about this revolution is not so much its consequences but the speed with which it has occurred. The Apple iPhone dates from 2007 and it and other smart phones have spawned industries: think of Uber and Lyft. Two thirds of the earth’s population have cell phones — mostly smart phones. The specter of a family at dinner with each member hunched over its iPad or iPhone is aptly described by Albright. But when looking at the consequences of technological revolutions it’s the slowly evolving ones that have had the greatest consequences. About 1.25 million people are killed each year, worldwide, by motor vehicles. It’s a statistic which apparently generates little alarm, and it’s a number that has held steady for years. It took 32 years, from 1908 to 1940, for the number of American homes with electricity to go from 10% to 80%. Smart phones are wonderful but the difference between having and not having electricity in one’s home dwarfs the novelty and convenience of the iPhone and its fellow travelers.
Albright asserts that these devices of digital connectivity will have an “impact equal to the printing press.” At this point I wish I could deploy Marshall McLuhan much as Woody Allen uses him to confront a bore in Annie Hall. McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man is a major, convincing, disquisition on the disruption and creation derived from the movable type printing press. He explains how the press and its applications created what we call modernity: “Print is the technology of individualism” he asserts and has given us the privileging of the visual over the aural, the spread of literacy, the nation state, the Protestant reformation, commodification of literature, the mechanization of handcraft, and capitalism. Albright talks about how brains are being altered through the multitasking indulged in by her digital natives. She is an intellectual descendant of McLuhan who wrote at length on how human perception has been altered by print. McLuhan’s changes took place over centuries and it is likely that any truly important changes wrought by Albright’s hyper-connectivity will take decades to evolve and become apparent, and it seems unlikely that they will be of the magnitude that McLuhan so convincingly describes.
A. David Wunsch is the book review editor of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. He is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His email address is David_Wunsch@uml.edu.
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