This should make for a fun family Thanksgiving conversation in a certain San Francisco mansion. In a personal sign of just how weird 2020 has become, I find myself largely in agreement with someone named Pelosi on the issue of gun ownership. In this case it’s Nancy Pelosi’s filmmaker daughter Alexandra as opposed to the House Speaker herself, but it’s still fairly bizarre to hear a prominent Democrat say that she would rather buy her 12-year old sons a gun than an iPhone.
Alexandra Pelosi’s pronouncement came as part of her press appearances for her new documentary American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself, which is partly a documentary of the 2020 election and partly an examination into how the smartphone has changed our daily lives and our interactions with our fellow Americans.
In making American Selfie, Pelosi came to see the cellphone as ironically both the propulsion of American division and a unifying source of concern. “Every single person I talked to, no matter who they were going to vote for or if they weren’t going to vote at all or didn’t even know who was on the ballot, would say: social media is destroying our mental health,” she said. “It’s destroying our conversation.”
“People are so much angrier because of something they read on the internet that may or may not be true,” she said. “People now have these devices in their hands that feed them toxic mistruths.”
Smartphones, just like firearms, are inanimate objects, and ultimately it’s the person using them that’s responsible for their own actions. Still, Pelosi argues that smartphones are tools that can be manipulated by outside forces as well as the owner.
“I always tell my kids: I would rather buy you a gun than an iPhone,” she said. “Because a gun is something you control – I can pull the trigger and shoot you if I want to, but an iPhone is controlling you. There are tech companies that have algorithms to shoot little bullets at your mental health, shooting little bullets at your brain to stimulate you or depress you.
“I think phones are much more dangerous than guns.”
I’m still not convinced that the issue is smartphones per se, but a broader complaint about where technology is taking us, at least in the realm of communication. It sounds like Pelosi’s real target are social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The smartphone is just a device that makes it easier for us to stay engaged at all times on the platforms.
On the toxic nature of social media, I’m much more in agreement with Alexandra Pelosi. For several years I’ve contented that one of the most important small-“c” conservative books of this century is Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not A Gadget”, which was one of the first real examinations of how social media “elevates the ‘wisdom’ of mobs and computer algorithims over the intelligence and wisdom of individuals.” Since its release a decade ago, Lanier’s warnings have only become more prescient, and we’ve been able to see over the past few months just how much power these platforms have in terms of influencing what we read and watch in our daily lives.
Just as with guns, however, the answer doesn’t lie with bans on “high powered assault phones” or government-imposed rations on screen time. Yes, the Internet is an increasingly toxic place, full of multiple layers of stories, fact-checks, fact-checks of fact-checks, rumors, innuendo, bad reporting, outright bias, and flagrant attempts at manipulation. It’s also not going away anytime soon.
What do you do when you have easy access to objects that, if misused, can harm you or others? You can try to limit that access through laws, regulations, and attempts to make the object culturally taboo, but that’s an exercise doomed to failure. A better way, in my opinion, is to try to educate people on the responsible use of that device, while promoting and reinforcing that responsible use of that device through cultural norms, positive peer pressure, and on rare occasions, even laws.
As much as Alexandra Pelosi hates smartphones and Shannon Watts hates AR-15s, neither inanimate object is going to disappear from our society, even if they were banned tomorrow. As much as I dislike Facebook, it’s not going away either. For all of their potential downsides, smartphones, firearms, and social media are widespread for a reason: people derive benefit from them.
Yes, a smartphone allows you to yell at strangers about politics, but it also allows you to see your new grandchild or your mom on her birthday. Social media connects you to disinformation campaigns and creates online mobs intent on canceling people, but it also allows you to serve as your own personally curated news network and enables you to use your social network to advocate and raise money for those in need. Firearms can be used to take innocent lives, but they can also be used to protect the innocent as well.
The Facebook to firearms comparisons can only be taken so far, but I’ll end with one more similarity; legislation and regulation can’t fix a lack of personal responsibility, and attempts to regulate and police every aspect of how companies (or legal gun owners) conduct their business is a herculean task.
At the same time, as users of these platforms we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t constantly remind ourselves that social media companies are in the business of keeping us hooked to their platforms, and our online experience is tailored to keep us plugged in just like casinos are designed to keep rear ends plopped in front of slot machines.
And yes, Pelosi is right that one of the primary tools of engagement is the endorphin rush some of us get when we get into a good Twitter fight (or even just call someone a ****rocket or a ****wipe before blocking them). Any sort of emotional response will keep people engaged, and anger just happens to be one of the easiest emotions to induce. When we recognize that and are aware of the attempts to keep us emotionally engaged, it helps us to be a little more rational in our online behavior.
Firearms training is designed to both rid us of our bad gun-handling habits and replace them with good ones. I’m not sure what similar social media training would look like, but I suspect that instead of learning how to draw our guns, we’d start with spending some time learning to put our smartphones away.