In the January, 2019 issue of Scientific American, columnist Michael Shermer reminds us of (Herb) Stein’s Law.
Things that can’t go on forever won’t.
A more precise quote is: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop,” but author Shermer’s rendition seems niftier.
I thought of this when I read two brilliant articles that set the stage for what follows in this essay.
- BuzzFeed: “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation.“
- Vox: “I work with kids. Here’s why they’re consumed with anxiety.“
The first article sets the stage and explains how technological impositions on us create burnout and “errand paralysis.” Basically, the internet has created a class of services that consume our time while simultaneously putting us a risk. Confronted with endless calendar and “To Do” necessities, information overload, guilt, and pressure to be a good digital citizen create depression and debilitation. Author Peterson writes (referring to her partner):
Tim and I are not alone in this paralysis. My partner was so stymied by the multistep, incredibly (and purposefully) confusing process of submitting insurance reimbursement forms for every single week of therapy that for months he just didn’t send them — and ate over $1,000. Another woman told me she had a package sitting unmailed in the corner of her room for over a year. A friend admitted he’s absorbed hundreds of dollars in clothes that don’t fit because he couldn’t manage to return them. Errand paralysis, post office anxiety — they’re different manifestations of the same affliction.
While simultaneously designing smartphones to addict us, the makers provide software vehicles for companies to transfer labor costs from them to us. We become robbed of our time and serenity.
A Pastor Tells His Story
In the second article linked above, pastor John Thornton Jr. tells the story of the kids in his congregation working in an exercise to describe what their lives felt like.
By the end of the exercise, the following words were written on the whiteboard: stressful, complicated, overinvolved, full of transitions, anxiety, uncertainty, pressure, and exhaustion.
The pressure on these students to optimize their lives starts at an early age.
As we continued to talk over the course of that school year, I also noticed how much their schools force them to think about their careers at increasingly young ages. The kids often used workplace lingo to describe their lives. One sixth-grader talked about a school assignment in which she had to develop a life plan that included her future career, which schools she should attend, and what she ought to major in at her chosen university.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Young people worry about the future prospects of crushing student debt, preparing for, getting and keeping a good job, and how climate change will affect them—to name a few. Social media, pastor Thornton observes, is not at the root of the problem. “At the same time that they stress about the future that’s so very far off, they live with technology that keeps that anxiety consistently in the front of their minds.”
Searching for Solutions
At the very time when the institutions of society, government and enterprise, should be grappling with solutions, the first is paralyzed, doing little to help and the second creates new problems, unabated, faster than young minds can cope.
Those of us who grew up during the personal computer and internet age have some perspective. We remember how things used to be. We cope. We adjust. We prioritize and set limits to our digital excesses. As author Peterson points out, Millennials aren’t so good a conjuring up coping mechanisms.
Paralysis is designed into our social fabric and to the advantage of corporations. If you don’t take time to read and study the EULA and the privacy terms or fail to act in a strictly defined way, you will suffer. The company will prosper. No wonder depression ensues.
How Social Change Will Affect Apple (And Others)
Returning to Stein’s Law, one can surmise that if governments and enterprise continue as they have, there will be a cultural upheaval. Science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, as I recall, foresaw this irrational backlash against technology in the future.
I can imagine that new services, even institutions, will emerge that work around our current social and financial models. Just as there’s a yearning to tidy up our lives cluttered with things, there will emerge a new emphasis on simplifying, bypassing, and cleaning up our out-of-control technological developments.
Just how Apple, or any high tech company, can plan for this is impossible to predict. But one thing is, I believe, certain. If these companies, and you know who they are, don’t elect to become part of a fundamental human solution, they’ll be declared part of our New Human Problem.
Things that can’t go on forever won’t.