Nonfiction November Week 3: Be the expert on tech pessimism

This week’s #NonFicNov prompt is hosted by Veronica, who has given us a few options: you can be the expert, ask the expert, or become the expert on a topic of your choosing. I informally put out a “ask the expert” call in my previous post, and it was answered! If you also want to learn more about Iceland, look no further. This week, I’m going to be the expert on tech pessimism, or to be more precise, on the many, many ways in which social media is harmful.

I’m not really a tech pessimist, or if I am, I’m deeply in denial, seeing as I tweet an average of 250-300 times per month. And yet I’m drawn to these books. I read them, agree with them, vow to change my ways, take week or month-long social media breaks, and then go right back to where I started. I see my Twitter addiction like my (long dormant, but never really gone) smoking addiction; the only way to beat it is to go cold turkey and to never give it an inroad. But unlike smoking, I can’t fully give up social media and neither can you, probably.

So, join me in a probably futile but always fascinating look at why social media is bad, m’kay? And because I think it’s relevant here, I’ve noted each book’s publication date, and the author’s generation. I note that was a real glut of these books in 2019 (guess we have bigger fish to fry now) and very few are written by digital natives…

For a comprehensive overview

  • The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff (2019, Boomer). If you want to read one book and become an expert, make it this one. But make sure you’re committed. I listened to all 40 hours of it on audio during a period of long commutes at the end of 2019. Very serious and academic in tone, covers the myriad ways in which social media companies are making everything worse. If only it were just about attention and clicks.

For a practical guide

  • Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier (2019, Boomer). If you want to read one book and be ready to take action, make it this one. Some of his arguments are stated a little strangely (he’s a strange guy!) but he lays out a pretty persuasive case.

For a philosophical view

These books are a little more esoteric. They may not give you a big picture overview, or spur you to action, but they will make you think in new ways about (relatively) old problems.

  • How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (2019, Millennial): Loved this when I read it, but honestly retained very little.
  • The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour (2019, Gen X): Did not love this, but, a rarity that focuses on Twitter rather than Facebook.
  • The Age of Earthquakes by Douglas Coupland (2015, invented the concept of Gen X): The absurdity of social media from a very Gen X perspective.
  • The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen (2013, Boomer, translating Karl Kraus, b. 1874): Franzen’s commentary is mostly about the “blogosphere,” while Mr. Kraus takes aim at proto-blogs called “feuilletons“. Unfortunately, blogs are social media, so this counts.

For some juicy gossip

Yeah, these are both about Facebook. If you want some Zuckerbergian schadenfruede, watch The Social Network and then read these.

  • Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe by Roger McNamee (2019, Boomer): An early Facebook investor and tech optimist has second thoughts.
  • An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Cecilia Kang (I’m guessing elder Millennial) and Sheera Frankel (also guessing Millennial) (2021): Very office-politics gossipy if you’re into that. They had great sources. Made me despair that this guy, who basically made a malignant version of HOTorNOT, has such huge influence over people’s lives and world events.

24 comments

  1. The Paperback Princess

    I read No Filter…last year? How IG started (that’s definitely my digital platform of choice) and how far it has strayed from it’s origins, especially once Facebook got on board. It is verrrry interesting to me that these books are mostly from Boomers or Gen X because I’m not sure those generations have been as affected by social media as Millennials and Gen Z. God only knows what poor Gen Alpha is up against. Great topic choice!!

    • lauratfrey

      Yeah, I mean some of those Boomers (Zuboff and Lanier) are experts in their fields, so they have the expertise, and perhaps they can see more of the dangers because they remember the before times. I really liked The Ugly Truth because you could tell that the authors get it, and though I couldn’t verify their ages, I’m convinced they’re Millenials!

      Yeah Gen Alpha aka our kids??? Good luck to them!

  2. volatilemuse

    Great choices and very interest post as always. I see mankind’s refusal to give up social media as related to mankind’s refusal to make changes to accommodate global warming. Some kind of mass obsession or something. A pandemic of narcissism?

    • lauratfrey

      Yep, I’ll admit it, I can’t let go of social media because of the immediate benefits, even though after reading these books (Zuboff and Lanier in particular) I can’t pretend I don’t know what I’m complicit in…

  3. Rebecca Foster

    I keep meaning to find the little essay/pamphlet “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” by Wendell Berry. Ironically, I feel like I’ve mostly read about this topic through fiction (recently: The Echo Chamber by John Boyne and No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood).

  4. Lory

    I just decided to delete my Facebook account, so this is timely. I’m still Twittering though. And don’t tell me blogs are equivalent to other social media! At least I can control my own blog and I’m not subject to advertising or algorithms. (Although I know well how addictive blogging can become.) Thanks for this thorough list of recommendations.

    • lauratfrey

      I think blogging mitigates a lot of the negatives, by being less about outrage and immediate gratification. Lord knows I put a lot more work into a blog post than a tweet!

    • lauratfrey

      I agree, there are plenty of positives in terms of connection and opportunities for people who didn’t have access to them before. You’re right, the harm is being done by the corporations, who have way too much control over way too many parts of people’s lives. As long as they’re motivated by profit, they’ll keep doing harm.

    • lauratfrey

      I’m a really young Gen Xer and was a very early adopter of the internet so unfortunately I am way too comfortable! Although I don’t think I’ll ever adopt newer platforms (hopefully! I watch TikTok but don’t post)

  5. Harry Katz

    I work in the tech sector and I’m generally.a tech optimist, but it’s important to look at the downsides & drawbacks too. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is one I’d heard about but haven’t read yet. Thanks for the recommendations.

  6. annelogan17

    I’m so fascinated by this topic, and I’d really like to take a social media break. I’m just not sure I could? I know blogs are technically social media, but I need to keep reviewing books on my blog and sending to publishers. Perhaps I could just take a break from facebook, twitter and insta? I’m seriously thinking of deleting my facebook page but so many people link to my blog that way – gah! My twitter addiction is getting BAD so I know I need to take a break from that. Along the same vein, I recommend 24/6 by Tiffany Shlein who advocates for going screen-free one day a week!

  7. Christopher | Plucked from the Stacks

    I don’t think I’ve found myself nodding along to an introduction more than yours this week. I might decry social media and it’s impact, but … there I am browsing Twitter. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism sounds really interesting—especially for a deep dive into the issue.

  8. Katie | Doing Dewey ❤️ (@DoingDewey)

    I find it really interesting that you enjoy reading these even though you’d not describe yourself as a tech pessimist. On the other hand, it does sound like you generally agree with these books when you’re reading them, which hasn’t been my experience! I’ve had such positive experiences with social media and other online ways of connecting (discord for gaming, meetup to make friends in new cities) that I find tech pessimism a bit frustrating most of the time. For that reason, I like reading about technology, but tend to avoid books that are in the tech pessimism category. It’s possible I should give them more of a chance though, because these all sound interesting as you’re describing them 🙂

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