| With its last-letter-in-the-alphabet, end-of-the-line implications, Generation Z may be the dumbest appellation ever assigned to an age category. Far more appropriate in describing kids born between the mid-1990s and the early teens is a term coined in 2017 by psychologist Jean Twenge – iGen.
In an Atlantic magazine article titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Twenge made a convincing argument that a world-wide, cross-cultural demographic paired with digital pacifiers since
early adolescence is “on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.” Citing skyrocketing rates of teen isolation, depression and suicide, Twenge writes, “The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time.”
That earthquake has just been quantified in one of the most disturbing documentaries of the year, “The Social Dilemma,” by director Jeff Orlowski. It’s a dystopian confessional by some of social media’s pioneering architects, now warning that their designs on innovative connectivity have turned on their masters and put not only kids but democracies everywhere in peril.
For anyone who’s been paying attention to brain science, the addictive, impulse-inducing and relentlessly monetized algorithms (what data scientist Cathy O’Neil calls “opinions embedded in code”) of this force is old news. But to hear industry trailblazers like former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris lay it all out – the tricks, the psychology, the formulas he says that are “overpowering human nature” – is beyond chilling. And the rewiring of neural pathways is just the beginning. As Microsoft virtual reality guru Jaron Lanier puts it, another 20 years in the current matrix “will probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance.” Some anthropologists might regard that time frame as overly optimistic.
Soooo, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about 1994, the quiet before the Internet storm. That was the year we got our (arguably) first look at a “reality” show, when O.J. Simpson’s whole lotta nothin’ slo-mo freeway chase presaged live streaming. It was the year Al Gore trumpeted the dawn of the “Information Superhighway,” and Netscape Navigator lorded over the embryonic world wide web. 1994 marked the ignition of ecommerce, with Pizza Hut laying claim to making the first online sale. It was the year Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, which would ultimately make him history’s first $200 billionaire.
1994 was also the year scores of schoolkids alleged that a landing involving one or more UFOs occurred near their playground in Ruwa, Zimbabwe. Given how it happened within months of the headline-splattering genocide in Rwanda, it’s a wonder the Ruwa event got any coverage at all outside of Africa. And yet, it did, briefly, before dropping quickly off the radar. But now, thanks to James Fox’s resuscitation of the incident in “The Phenomenon,” maybe we should all circle back.
In videotaped interviews conducted immediately after the encounter, the children were unanimous in their insistence that they had also seen occupants outside the craft. Some reported receiving telepathic messages via contact with the visitors’ large unblinking, jet-black eyes.
“I think they want, um, people to know that we’re actually making harm on this world and that we mustn’t get too technologed (sic),” said one girl. Added another, “If we don’t look after the planet, all the trees will just go down and there will be no end, people will be dying.”
More than 20 years later, the former students were sticking to their guns about the warnings they perceived. “I kept getting these thoughts and ideas in my mind of technology – technology’s not helping, technology’s bad, and we’re going down the wrong path,” insisted one. “And we have to start recognizing that what we’re doing is detrimental, and we need to make changes. And I don’t know what to do with that …”
Pursuing this line of evidence is going to be a sticky wicket for many, if not most, social scientists. Yet, it’s hard to believe these witnesses were all lying or group-hallucinating half a lifetime ago. And that’s why, if we’re serious about getting to the bottom of this impossibly convoluted mystery, all options are on the table, including the science of cognition.
I spent much of the weekend reviewing air time devoted to The Great Taboo by the only prime-time media fixture who seems to get it – Tucker Carlson of Fox News. At least 33 segments* in all, 31 since the New York Times in 2017 gave cover to scientists to open to honest inquiry. And this is coming from a pugilist who slings political gasoline on climate science whenever images of firenadoes get too egregious to ignore. (September 20: “In the hands of Democratic politicians, climate change is like systematic racism in the sky. You can’t see it, but rest assured it’s everywhere and it’s deadly. And like systematic racism, it is your fault.”)
Nevertheless, Carlson is paying attention, which is commendable. Since the Times broke the AATIP story three years ago, he’s kept his 4 million-plus viewers looped in on virtually every significant development, from the U.S. Navy revising UFO reporting rules for its pilots to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s request for accountability. Two weeks ago, in fact, Carlson promoted “The Phenomenon” on his show, and responded “It’s outrageous” after viewing the clip where bete noire Harry Reid complained that most of the UFO data is still being kept under wraps.
“If this wasn’t an election year, we’d be doing a full hour on this, maybe a full week,” Carlson said, “it’s that important.”
Well, maybe. Or maybe not. A review of the TC archives indicates his coverage is growing circular, redundant and formulaic. His segments average less than 5 minutes apiece, but knock 45 seconds off the top to make room for a setup that includes a space alien logo (complete with forehead antennae) and gratuitous flying saucer CGI, which visually trivializes the ensuing discussion.
Hey, I get it – that’s television.
But Carlson’s “The Truth Is Out There?” guest list is growing increasingly familiar, maybe lazy. No reason to name names – it’s not the talking heads’ fault. But if this issue really is “that important,” and you’ve got the biggest weeknight viewership in the U.S. and you seriously refuse to carve out more time for it, then at least get informed policymakers, or more diverse disciplines, to go on record and shake up the conversation. Because the reinvigorated testimony of the Ruwa kids has just added another level of complexity to this dilemma. And dead-end sound bites from a disengaged Donald Trump won’t cut it.
The election is incapable of resolving our deepening crisis, which at its core is an evolutionary shift in technologically activated behaviors. The business model driving our crippling co-dependencies may be impossible to reverse. Our house is on fire. Organizing bucket brigades may demand new ways of thinking that were unimaginable just three years ago — assuming it isn’t too late already.
* Thanks again, Giuliano Marinkovic
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