This weekend, the Sunday New York Times Magazine published a new feature that made a bold assertion: “human contact is now a luxury good.” (I tweeted out a thread about it, but it merits being a blog post.)
Honestly, before we accept an underlying premise, I’d like to see hard data that supports this article’s conclusion about how wealthy people live today, including:
- how much screentime “the rich” spend daily vs everyone else
- whether they’re on computing devices versus TVs
- what they do on those screens (consumption, production, management)
It’s possible that wealthy people spending more on experiences versus on consumer technology reflects a cultural shift and their deeper understanding of the “secret to happiness.” It could also be that cohort already has big TVs, smartphones, tablets, & computers in 2019.
Minimizing screentime in favor of human assistants or meetings is one thing, but I’d like to read more about how, exactly, the wealthy have “opted out” of having their data and their attention sold as a product. Who has been able to leverage their wealth to do this, where, and how?
For instance, how much does Uber know about how some of the rich, more powerful people in the world move around DC and when? Have “the wealthy” opted out? Or what does Google know about their interests? Have they blocked data brokers compiling a profile? And so on.
I don’t doubt many wealthy parents have altered personal tech use themselves & academic use for kids in response to growing evidence of negative impact. We all should be. That’s why I wish NYT had linked to the NIH study on screen time, not a CBS News report on it.
Parents, teachers, principals, and legislators all need to be even more involved not just in crucial access issues (like whether a school has a broadband Internet access or a computer for each child) but also their use. Are kids gaming, watching and consuming? What? How often? At what ages? Or coding, writing, or creating? Are teachers showing them videos on their personal devices?
But education tech aside (the most important part of this piece, to me) I think the assertion that “human contact is rare” for poor people also needs more data behind it, particularly as the result of tech companies intending to confuse themes.
If you don’t have money, you can’t pay for someone else’s time. You can’t outsource a task or errand. You trade time, labor, & even health to earn money. For some parents, work means letting kids watch TV or phone isn’t as much of a choice.
The NYT reporter talked to Sherry Turkle about this, who compared screentime to fast food. It’s…an apt comparison! People know it’s unhealthy, but it’s cheap, accessible, ubiquitously marketed, & can be comforting. Behavioral addictions mediated by tech have parallels to other public health problems.
What’s missing is the extent to which tech use and human contact is mediated not just by wealth but by power, as I discussed with Turkle years ago. It’s implicit, but bears discussion. I suspect it’s only a “status symbol” to be device-free within tiny wealthy and/or highly educated cohorts.
As technology is integrated more into every profession & industry, who has to be connected & when is only the start of a conversation implicating not just workers’ rights but civil liberties & human dignity. Consider who has to wear GPS anklets after they serve their sentences in prison, or the explosion in workplace tracking and the expansion of the “employer surveillance state.”
The NYT article ends not by interrogating this dynamic between wealth or power, or disparities in screen use across class, race or gender, but exploring how tech connects humans in nursing homes, enabling remote workers interact with bed-ridden seniors, the impact of which could be its own followup story.
Some research I’ve seen (and the New York Times has published) suggests technology is not driving us apart, but connecting us.
How, where, when, who, and to what effect remain questions I hope we all keep asking.