In an era of technological acceleration, gauging the effect of new technology on our lives is ever more important. Thus, I welcome Justin Buckley Dyer’s skeptical take on the influence of social media on social life, even if I am largely skeptical of his skepticism and even in greater disagreement with his views on technological progress in general.
Dyer suggests that social media will distract people from making the real connections with others essential to human flourishing. My first reason for doubt is the lack of data. Do people have fewer real friendships because they have more “friends” on Facebook? To be sure, Dyer is not at fault for not supplying a quantitative analysis. Even though our computational age is more amenable than ever to empiricism, we do not have the data to answer that question. Moreover, to answer it, we would have to quantify true friendship—a process that Dyer might well think would defeat the entire enterprise.
But even in the absence of complete information, we can see that social media can be a complement to rather than a substitute for conventional friendship. For example, I still meet friends for dinner and cultural events and talk with them on the phone. But between these encounters following them on social media makes them present in my mind. It also enriches my experience of the world, as I hope it does theirs. We serve as each others’ scouts, posting material and opinions that permit us discoveries we would have missed. And for my housebound parents, Facebook has become an important link to family in other cities that they cannot visit. More generally, Skype and other wonders of modern technology help millions like them to reach out virtually to family members they cannot touch physically.
I also take some issue with the general tenor of Dyer’s sentiments toward technology. Technology and its labor savings can destroy old ways of life that were surely valuable. But the question is whether on balance the tradeoffs are to be preferred. And here we do have substantial evidence that technology is a force for improvement and happiness. Not only do people in our society choose more technology over less, but also there is enormous migration from technologically poor societies to technologically rich ones. People like a life of greater leisure that comes from labor-saving devices, not least because they can spend more time with their friends.
And I reject entirely the contention that television has led to less literacy. It is simply false if literacy is taken in the sense of lower literacy rates. But even if what is meant is that people have become less literary and that television has led to the fewer books being read, people are not less engaged in stories that enlighten us about the human condition. To be sure, television at its beginning was a weak medium for mass entertainment. But today, long-form television in miniseries and serials presents complicated comedies, tragedies and dramas that rival the popular fiction of any era.
Indeed, the cultural richness of our technological era makes more acute this salient economic truth: time is our greatest constraint. But my friends’ recommendations on social media help me make the best of my allotted days.