Digital Is No Different

Digital media’s critics echo the same arguments and attitudes of paternalists past.

For as long as there have been adolescent entertainments, there have been panicked adults worried about how young people are spending their time and how creators are manipulating innocents.

In the early 1800s, critics worried that young women were enthralled by novels. Some of the cultural anxiety had political connotations. “Novel reading for women was associated with inflaming of sexual passions; with liberal, radical ideas; with uppityness; with the attempt to overturn the status quo,” English professor and Jane Austen scholar Barbara M. Benedict told the New York Times in 2014.

But much of the concern was simply about time and attention. Novels were written specifically to hook readers, with each plot twist and psychological insight subtly suggesting that the reader continue to turn the pages—and to buy more novels. As Stanford literature professor Margaret Cohen told the Times, the sense at the time was that “novel reading was so absorptive, and that was seen as one of its dangers, in that it would divorce you from everyday life.” To read a novel, in this view, was to be narcotized by powerful forces beyond your control.

This conception of manipulation and attention, which applies to any product designed to induce consumers to want more of it, was similarly at the heart of early efforts to regulate arcades—not the Pac-Man and Galaga-populated videodromes that dotted the shopping malls of the 1980s but earlier arcades that featured analog entertainments, such as pinball machines.

In the 1940s, pinball machines were viewed as engines of social ruination. The arcades of the era were popular with immigrants and young people and were sometimes home to gambling. Thus, they became targets for politicians. In 1942, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia sent armed police to seize such machines from all over the city, taking in more than 2,000 on the first day alone. Pinball was made illegal in the city of New York and did not become legal again until 1976.

Bans on pinball machines were common in American cities as diverse as White Plains, New York, and Oakland, California, during the middle of the twentieth century. In 1955, Kokomo, Indiana, banned pinball, with the city’s mayor insisting that such games “tend against peace and good order, encourage vice and immorality and constitute a nuisance.” Among the concerns was that men sometimes gambled on pinball games, with a local paper noting that “wives whose husbands have gambled away their entire pay checks on pinballs have complained against the devices.”

The idea was plainly paternalistic: In the face of such a powerfully seductive psychological force, pinball players couldn’t help themselves; government had to be employed to control the base urges that these nefarious new devices sparked. Ordinary people simply couldn’t be relied on to make reasonable choices.

The Paternalist Strikes Back

The Internet is new but no different. It is both a technology and a pastime, a time-waster and a time-saver, a toy and a tool, a platform for the delivery of every imaginable type of information—from books to movies to satellite temperature data to government tax-revenue estimates to the essay that you are reading right now—and perhaps for your paper towels as well. It is intended to be used and to be useful.

The coders and user-interface technicians and machine-learning whizzes who engineer the Internet’s interactive features have worked to make them appealing, even satisfying, to use. Because it is both enjoyable and useful—and indeed, has become even more enjoyable and useful over time—people have tended to spend more and more time online.

But tech companies have become victims of their own success. People—many of them adolescents and young adults—are once again passing the time by engaging in behavior that some authority figures find worrying, vaguely disreputable, and socially disconnecting. Social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok, for instance, have come under fire for their left-leaning politics and for luring in the vulnerable—particularly adolescents.

The complaints have hardly changed since the days when novels and pinball were the subjects of scorn. At the heart of all these concerns, in every era, are moralistic judgments about how people spend their time.

Cultural scolds and public authorities have decided that the Internet poses a cultural-political problem to be solved through force. Senator Josh Hawley, perhaps Congress’s most outspoken critic of large technology companies, has proposed bills that would ban features such as “infinite scroll,” in which social media interfaces continuously load new content without the user needing to refresh the screen, and “streaks,” a feature on Snapchat that rewards users with colorful icons for consecutive days of communicating with friends. Hawley explicitly pitched these restrictions as efforts to fight social media “addiction.”

To some extent, this just represents a contemporary tendency to treat disfavored human habits and behavior as medical conditions. Yet there is little broad evidence to suggest that heavy Internet use represents a genuine malady. For example, one meta-review of 61 studies of Internet addiction from 1996 to 2006 mostly found that such studies were flawed, relying on “inconsistent criteria to define Internet addicts.” Studies of Internet addiction, the authors reported, “examined data using primarily exploratory rather than confirmatory data analysis techniques to investigate the degree of association rather than causal relationships among variables.”

But the lack of evidence has not stopped Hawley, who has also introduced a bill to ban “loot boxes” in video games. This feature lets players pay for a collection of randomized rewards; some rewards are merely cosmetic, and others are power-ups that make online games easier to win. A press release from Hawley’s office announcing the bill denounced “manipulative video game practices aimed at children,” referred derisively to the “addiction economy,” and included a quote from an outside group condemning such features as “dangerous gambling-like attributes” that are “psychologically manipulative and may cause unsophisticated users such as children to become addicted.” (In the years since Hawley’s 2019 bill, some major video-game companies have pared back loot box–like features, especially those that offer game-play-enhancing rewards—simply because they were unpopular with players.)

Manipulation. Gambling. Addiction. The fragility of young minds.

The complaints have hardly changed since the days when novels and pinball were the subjects of scorn. At the heart of all these concerns, in every era, are moralistic judgments about how people spend their time.

Update or Upgrade?

This much is true: The Internet feels different. That’s partly because of its immediacy but also because of its ubiquity. Pinball machines were quite pervasive in 1940s New York City, and novels in the Regency era were practically omnipresent in educated households. But no one used a pinball machine to buy groceries. Some devoted readers likely fell asleep with novels in their hands, but no one woke up in the morning to a printed page full of flashing message alerts.

For many, the Internet has become an all-purpose, always-on mediator for their jobs, their thoughts, their communications with friends and family, and all manner of commercial exchange. For those who only semi-ironically identify as “Extremely Online,” it is the locus of personal identity. It can feel omnipresent and inescapable, especially following a pandemic year when so many aspects of life migrated further online.

This much is true: The Internet feels different. That's partly because of its immediacy but also because of its ubiquity.

Pinball might have been manipulative, but the analog world put limits on its reach. Today, those manipulations are managed by complex, ever-changing, and often mysterious algorithms that attempt to lure us in and are sometimes viewed as holding users in thrall. The amount of time consumed by the Internet dwarfs that of pinball. The Internet can indeed seem different because of the scale alone.

But that sense is largely an illusion. Yes, the Internet is more omnipresent than pinball or adolescent serial fiction or Reagan-era video arcades. But the Internet is not a monolith. It is a distributed system of digital connection to any number of destinations, from Facebook and Twitter to Netflix and Spotify to lovingly preserved libraries of old-timey fiction and prehistoric folk songs.

While some of those destinations are, of course, large and well trafficked, none of them is compulsory or even all that essential. It is possible to log off Twitter (I do it most days), to quit Facebook (I paused my account years ago and do not regret it), and to avoid signing up for TikTok or Snapchat (I have never had an account with either) or whatever the next trendy social media destination happens to be. Indeed, some of these companies will be gone in a few years, remembered only as fads of the past. Snapchat has already faded. Remember MySpace? Or Friendster?

Arguments that online media have some uniquely powerful hold over people's minds and time is a convenient fiction premised on false notions of individual helplessness and static digital marketplaces.

At the end of 2020, Facebook saw its second consecutive quarter of decline among daily active users in the U.S. and Canada—two of its oldest and most advanced markets. Even amid a pandemic that radically increased screen time and online socializing—perhaps the most favorable possible external environment for growing a social network—Facebook’s supposedly vast arsenal of algorithms and behavioral nudges didn’t have an unbreakable grip on people’s time or attention. Millions of people found other things to do. They chose to log off.

Arguments that online media have some uniquely powerful hold over people’s minds and time is a convenient fiction premised on false notions of individual helplessness and static digital marketplaces. Indeed, few of today’s online media giants have the reach of television, which, in the early 1950s, daily consumed more than four and a half hours, on average, in every household in America—a figure that had risen to nearly nine hours by 2010.

The Internet may be ubiquitous and more accessible. It may offer more choice and more interactivity. But these qualities are, for the most part, improvements. To the extent that they capture attention, they are different only in degree, not in kind.

Capturing Your Attention

All media products and services attempt, in some form or another, to commodify our attention, to coax readers and viewers and listeners into turning another page, watching another episode, queuing up another song, clicking to another article. That is the business of media, online and off. There is a reason that journalists, even in the analog era, obsessed over ledes and headlines and structural attributes; they were proven methods for systematically engaging and maintaining the attention of large numbers of readers. A media institution, or an individual writer, that did not seek to commodify attention would be one that sought irrelevance.

I have written this essay in hopes of inducing readers to stay with me to the end. Am I attempting to capture and commodify your attention? Of course I am—as is every other producer of content and entertainment, digital or analog. It is not nefarious when an individual does it; the larger scale and reach of online media do not magically transform media into a unique civilizational threat.

The attention economy is really just 'the economy.'

Jane Austen and other novelists of her era were not cynical purveyors of addiction; they were writers—content creators, media entrepreneurs—seeking to engage the public’s attention. Some 200 years later, we don’t worry that Austen and her contemporaries ruined young minds by monopolizing their time. We recognize that they contributed to the advance of human thought and culture.

That online media companies, like so many media and entertainment businesses before them, seek to monetize our precious hours is no surprise. It represents no new or uniquely worrying frontier in the commodification of attention—because, in some sense, attention is all there is. The attention economy is really just “the economy.” Time is all we have in life, so of course it is valuable—to ourselves and to others. That this remains true in the Internet age is no reason to panic.

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Peter Suderman is the features editor at Reason magazine.

@petersuderman

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