Living through the rise of digital communications has been a bittersweet experience. The transformation exemplifies a truth that I see everywhere: Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. So far, we’re much better at using the advantages than understanding and minimizing the disadvantages.
Consider music. I love how easy it is to enjoy music nearly anywhere, anytime now — and it always sounds perfect. Using my family’s discarded smartphones, I play it through the TV sound bar, the car audio system and clock radios. I only use headphones when I’m vacuuming.
I often use Wi-Fi to stream SomaFM, a collection of commercial free music channels that only occasionally ask for a donation. Buying music is cheap and quick online.
When I was a young adult, the basic choice was commercial radio stations or buying albums at two or three times their current cost. And cassettes and records had poorer sound quality and wore out.
Yet that period half a century ago seemed far better for live music. In the space of eight years and on blue-collar wages, I saw the Jefferson Airplane (twice), Fleetwood Mac, Chicago Transit Authority, Iron Maiden, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Blood Sweat & Tears, Van Morrison, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Yes, and in a single eight-hour concert at the Fillmore East, the Allman Brothers, Love and the Grateful Dead.
It was a good time for popular music, sure, but in large part that was because performers could make a lot of money from record and tape sales. Inexpensive concerts in relatively small (sometimes quite small) venues paid off in sales of recorded music.
Now one-third of people are listening to music that has been stolen and distributed online, which pays nothing to the creators of music. To compete with that, the price to buy or stream music is kept artificially low, further reducing the income of performers. Even live performances are illegally recorded and distributed.
Music isn’t alone in being undermined by society’s new tolerance of widespread thievery. Every art and craft whose creations can be represented digitally — movies, books, theater, newspapers, dance, paintings and many others — has been damaged by content theft.
So far, government hasn’t done much to address this corrosion of cultural creation and communication, even as that diminishes society’s capacity for fulfillment and human growth. The movie industry got pretty good content protections as a result of its expensive lobbying campaign, but the rest have been left to wither or in the case of books, government actively abetted the pillaging of content.
Impervious protections for intellectual property may not currently be possible, but the technology exists to restore law and order to the fabric of culture that makes civilization possible. Society will become more dysfunctional and filled with animosity until that is done.
Even this may not be the biggest threat of digital communications. There is growing evidence that the technologies are reducing the self-esteem and even the will of users through a constellation of features designed to ensure obsessive and nearly unstoppable use.
Tristan Harris, a former product designer and ethicist at Google, quit that job to lead a campaign to warn government and Silicon Valley about the destructive dark side of social media and smartphones. Two years ago he outlined how a small number of tech companies were controlling billions of minds by nearly forcibly attracting and keeping their attention.
Even if tech companies would or could be turned away from products and practices that drive billions in revenue but damage society, it’s not clear what could stop others intent on profiting from personal and social harm in the future, given the open structure of the internet.
Perhaps people must develop the capacity to resist the self-destructive use of digital technology, just as many are able to refrain from using drugs, drinking or eating too much, obsessing about sex and many other harmful temptations of modern life.
Email Kevin Post, editorial page editor, at email@example.com or call 609-272-7250.