Modern Technologies vs. Democracy

James Williams, a recipient of the coveted Google Founder’s Award in a Nautilus article:

Democracy assumes a set of capacities: the capacity for deliberation, understanding different ideas, reasoned discourse. This grounds government authority, the will of the people. So one way to talk about the effects of these technologies is that they are a kind of a denial-of-service (DoS) attack on the human will. Our phones are the operating system for our life. They keep us looking and clicking. I think this wears down certain capacities, like willpower, by having us make more decisions. A study showed that repeated distractions lower people’s effective IQ by up to 10 points. It was over twice the IQ drop that you get from long-term marijuana usage. There are certainly epistemic issues as well. Fake news is part of this, but it’s more about people having a totally different sense of reality, even within the same society or on the same street. It really makes it hard to achieve that common sense of what’s at stake that is necessary for an effective democracy.”


The Coddling Campus

“I believe that our current cohorts of students have been raised in a social environment where protection from potential harm has been the order of the day. While this is certainly a good thing – particularly when considering the adverse psychological effects of experiencing physical, emotional or sexual abuse (Springer et al., 2003) – this protectionist trend may have permeated into a sense of entitlement to be free from any form of discomfort.

“At the most fundamental level, it has been observed that this entitlement, coupled with the enactment of policies to prevent being confronted by events, information or any other stimuli that have the potential to trigger an adverse emotional response, is directly at odds with recommended practices to build psychological resilience and prevent mental ill health (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015). Using a classical conditioning paradigm, the use of gradual exposure to potentially triggering stimuli forms a part of trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy and is a recommended treatment option for post-traumatic stress disorder in the NICE clinical guidance.

“What this means is that by ‘coddling’ those calling for safe spaces, we risk making their sensitivity to such stimuli worse. While these effects may not emerge in the short-term (if university campuses are sanitised of such triggering stimuli, then emotional distress will not be triggered by these issues), this ‘vindictive protectiveness’ (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015) prevents students from developing the requisite level of psychological resilience to be able to confront such triggers when they emerge into the wider world.

“Over time, repeated and reinforced emotional appraisals of individuals from different ideological standpoints become automatic and intuitive – consistent with Gawronski and Bodenhausen’s (2011) associative-propositional model of attitudes. As our social networks become increasingly ideologically pure, our encounters with those who may have different viewpoints becomes more restricted. Thus when these contrary opinions are encountered, they are met by automatic negative appraisals – both in terms of the content of these opinions and of the individuals expressing them. Such emotional states then spread via ‘contagion’ (see del Vicario et al., 2016).”

The soft bigotry of school discipline reform

Editor’s note: This is a lightly edited version of prepared remarks that Mr. Whitehead delivered to senior U.S. Department of Education officials at Friday morning’s listening session concerning the agency’s school discipline guidance. Mr. Whitehead is a retired high school teacher with thirty-seven years of teaching experience, the last twenty-five years of which were in Minneapolis.