How social media flipped from utopia to dystopia

If you use social media and the internet--and almost everyone does these days--you have to learn to take the bad with the good.

How social media flipped from utopia to dystopia

Dan Patterson, a Senior Producer for CBS News and CNET, interviewed Brian McCullough, host of the daily Techmeme Ride Home podcast, about how the internet and social media have developed over the years. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Dan Patterson: For a long time, the internet was powerful, magical. It helped us do new things, meet new people, and accomplish things that we might not have ever dreamed of. And then suddenly it became horrible, and when we look at the future of the internet, it doesn't look bright. Help me understand what happened then, and how we got to where we are now.

Brian McCullough: What happened then? It was just the shock of the new, over and over and over. What's never really changed is that new things keep coming at you all the time. We were in a period of time where the new seemed to be happening over and over, and it was all good. It was all things that were entering normal people's lives, people's pockets--like how they keep in touch with their friends, affect each other.

So, what happened was, there was a period of about 10 years where the computer and internet revolution--that had been going on for 30 years, for 50 years--finally went mainstream in the sense that, as opposed to it just being a PC in your home that maybe your kids wrote reports on and maybe you did spreadsheets on, to it's a computer in your pocket, and you run your entire life through it, down to how you order your food at night, down to figuring out where your kids are to pick up from school, to everything you can imagine.

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That's why it felt good, because it was all things that seemingly made our lives more efficient and better. Because it kept coming--there's a hangover, so that maybe it always was going to feel overwhelming, and the relentlessness of that technology infiltrating every corner of our life started to feel onerous. We started to notice the downsides of some of those things in every corner of our life. So, it's either a cyclical, natural backlash, or it's just us evolving with the technology and learning how to actually get it in our lives.

Dan Patterson: I asked you a little bit of a loaded question, and when we talk about the history of the internet, we have to go back thousands of years to the beginning of computing devices. What you are describing now is really the modern internet, this era of a smartphone and now the internet of things, high speed, high technology, high data, and iterations that happen very quickly. Before we talk about those iterations and the speed of those iterations, let's talk about modern computing history.

We started with punch cards in the early 19th century, and we introduced networking about halfway through the 20th century. Tell me a little bit about these precursor days and what was foundational that helped us get to where we are now.

Brian McCullough: What's interesting about the timeline--this is a very interesting year; it's the 50th anniversary of the ARPANET this year, which people consider to be the birth of the internet. It's also depending on how you count the 30th anniversary of the web. Specifically for modern technology and modern computing, most people understand the analogy of computers used to be a command line, and you had to know languages and programming to know how to operate computers, and then the graphical user interface in the mouse and the icons and the clicking came in, and normal people could do computing.

The way to think of the internet and the web and modern networking is a similar analogy where the ARPANET was created in 1969 for academics and military and government and things like that. It was all arcane, and no one thought that normal people were going to use it.

In the same sense that the GUI--the graphical user interface--overlaid computing and made it  
simple for normal people to understand, the web is again pictures, icons, clicking. The web is basically the thing. I think that the web is the killer app for all of computing in the sense that, again, we got our first computer in 1986 in my family, but my mom didn't use it on a regular basis till 1996 when I went to college and she could email me every day to keep in touch with me.

The web being the thing that mainstreams and actually has a use case for normal people to use it in their everyday life. Then the third major stage is just again putting a supercomputer in all of our pockets--a connected computer in all of our pockets--so that everyday utility is now always at hand, and there's almost not a function that the smartphone can't help you with.

Dan Patterson: Is it correct to say, when we entered the smartphone era, we didn't just put a new camera that allows us to connect and Google things and find out more things in our pocket? What we really did is put a paradigm shift in our pocket.

Brian McCullough: Indeed. I always like to joke that there's the ability now--you can download an app, you can hold up your camera, and you're in a foreign country, and you look at a sign in a foreign language, and on the screen it can translate that in real time for you. If I had come out with that invention in 1978, I'd be on the cover of Time Magazine. I'd probably win a Nobel Prize. And that's just one app, one tool, and not even a very enormous $1 billion company idea. That's just a component of what the smartphone does.

Using these different paradigms, if we made computers and then we connected all the computers together: that's the internet. Then we put all the computers in all of our pockets and connected them together, then what we did functionally was connect all the human beings on the planet together. As you mentioned, the next stage is--every little internet of things, the table, the TV--everything will be connected. The whole world is just this thriving, throbbing data point.

Dan Patterson: This also enables these technologies that we refer to as social networking. This is the democratization of the dissemination of information, and it helped me connect with long-lost friends, grandparents, maybe friends and family that I ordinarily would never have developed relationships with. That's a good thing, right?

Brian McCullough: Sure felt that way for a while, didn't it? I don't know. I wrestle with that a lot, and I think that's what a lot of people wrestle with is, for people of my generation--and I think for a lot of people in Silicon Valley and in technology--the guiding assumption all this time was that technology was going to be good for humanity, giving everybody a voice, giving every human being at their fingertips the access to all the collected information of human history. How could that possibly be anything but a net positive to society? 

Obviously, no one would argue that there haven't been net positives to society, but I think we all are, in technology, struggling with the idea that it's not a complete net good, that as powerful as the goods are to that paradigm, there are just as powerful negatives to that.

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