The Untethered Generation is reshaping the American Dream so quickly that community bonds and personal freedoms are in jeopardy

By Bliss Bowen

Increasing reliance on digital media is having social, emotional and psychological consequences that are changing society more quickly than the Industrial Revolution. Right: Digital sociologist Julie Albright

Sociologist Julie Albright’s “Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream” offers a comprehensive examination of how escalating rates of digital dependence and “churn” cause societal changes on par with the Industrial Revolution for which we’ve not prepared.

This is not untilled ground. Journalist Courtney Martin’s 2016 book “The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream” surveyed a parallel landscape more idealistically, and New York Times technology reporter Nellie Bowles recently posited that for all but the very rich, “human contact is becoming a luxury good” as life is “increasingly mediated by screens.”

Albright similarly finds that “the lower the socioeconomic status of the family, the more time kids spend looking at screens.”

But Albright, a USC professor with a dual doctorate in both sociology and marriage-and-family therapy, marshals new data about emotional, physical, psychological and societal consequences of “untethering” from family and from financial and political structures, as well as the deepening digital divide that’s creating “separate cultures” within societies.

Rather than being prescriptive, her book primarily shows how meaningful historical and sociological patterns form what she calls a “double helix of technology and behavior evolution reshaping the society.” She finds there is no one-size-fits-all remedy for issues as complex and diverse as the empathy gap (fueled by the inability to read the facial expressions and body language of others in cyberspace), digital addiction, cybersecurity, digital surveillance, text-dependent students who struggle to initiate or sustain telephone conversations, and even diminishing cooking skills.

In a telephone interview while in Santa Fe on a speaking tour, Albright says she wants to “elicit conversation” about our relationship with digital devices, and notes that digital natives are becoming “mentally and physically ill” as their connection with nature wanes.

“That’s one of the things that drove me to write this book,” she says. “We are not doomed. Don’t get that message. There is hope on the horizon. But it necessitates lifestyle changes.”

The Argonaut: Is this about digital Darwinism?

Albright: We’re in a time of great transition from analog into a digital era. That’s manifesting in generational differences in terms of their orientations toward technology. Walk outside, you’ll see heads bent over cellphones in any city in America and increasingly across the globe. … Unintended consequences are beginning to show up as a result of more and more ubiquitous digital connectivity. As we connect everyone in the world, network effects show up that frankly many of these tech titans could never have dreamed of. … The folks that create these networks and software are not sociologists or psychologists; they’re computer scientists and engineers [focused] on the widget as opposed to what the impact of that widget will be when unleashed into the wilds of society.

You write about a grandmother looking defeated by a 7-year-old grandson playing on a cellphone he won’t relinquish; a 10-year-old girl refusing to give her parents the password to her burner phone; and Japanese mothers whose sons haven’t emerged from bedrooms in years. How much is digitalization contributing to adults relinquishing their parental responsibilities?

Parents are up against a huge challenge here because digital technologies, particularly mobile technologies and apps, have addictive behavioral drivers baked right into them — the same as you would find in a gambling slot machine. … Kids can throw a tantrum, it can get ugly, and for many parents it’s easier to relinquish control of the device as opposed to creating space between the device and their children. But we need some of these sacred spaces. Parents themselves need to be good role models in “digital hygiene”: how and when to use a phone, how and when to disconnect, and connecting back one-on-one, face-to-face with their children.

We’ve seen reports of teenagers suicidal over revenge porn and other forms of online bullying, and you describe a disturbing lack of sociability and intimacy skills among kids and twentysomethings. How might parents and teachers proactively address that?

Digital connectivity is changing childhood. Now all behaviors are recorded. Private moments or thoughts or images can now be shared to others and amplified to the whole high school, for example, creating shame for the victim. Kids don’t have the coping skills to deal with this. And frankly this is an entirely new context in which to grow up. The rules aren’t clear; we’re making it up as we go along.

The pressures on kids now are in some ways unprecedented. Not only do you have a peer group that you’re comparing yourself to in the local school, you now have a peer group across the country — sometimes even across the globe — comparing and judging and commenting on you, sometimes in very cruel ways.

Social media and this kind of connectivity amplify consequences. Suicide is the No. 2 cause of death in 18- to 39-year-olds now, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote this book, because these things are not disconnected. They’re all part of a constellation of context and behaviors around digital connectivity, around social media, that we need to step back and take a look at.

You describe students who believe they don’t need to learn cursive handwriting or how to read physical maps, relinquishing that independence to digital media. What happens if the electricity goes out?

Yesterday I wanted to tip a valet and asked if he had change for $10. He and two other valets looked at me in shock, like it was disgusting to even touch cash. They’re shifting over to using Venmo, for example, to share the cost of a meal or to tip. We’re growing increasingly reliant upon digital devices, which will set us up for a series of deficiencies when the devices fail. And they will fail. The electricity will go out.

You write about digital nomads, “van life,” the prioritization of experiences over acquisition of property, and monetization of social media: an ‘Untethered Generation’ working various gigs in a platform economy, disconnected from traditional safety nets, questioning the “necessity of the political nation-state” as well as structures of capitalism, banking and commerce. Would you say this “new social DNA” is seeding a new form of anarchy?

I don’t know if I would frame it as anarchy, but I would say untethering is a new social form, a new way of living. And it’s manifesting among digital natives because connectivity is now not rooted in an analog life, where they’re in a neighborhood, associating with neighbors, going to church, and being part of a long-term career where they have a place in the community. The notion is: “I have an endless array of things I can be and places I can go.” At first blush, that looks very exciting and fun. But for some of these people, untethering means you’re coming unmoored. So we see things now manifesting in society like anxiety, depression, loneliness … There’s a cost to all that freedom. The workplace may have to reconsider what its role is.

What issues would you urge presidential candidates to prioritize?

What I call the end-of-jobs problem, or untethering from work. As automation, robotics and artificial intelligence get more skilled, get smarter, they’ll take over increasingly wide swaths of the workplace. People say we’ve always had digital transformation of work and society, and point to the Industrial Revolution: “We had horses and buggies, and then we had cars and everybody was fine.” What they don’t take into account is it took 30 years before the majority of people had cars.

Fast forward to now, the uptick in things like the iPad or social media, and you’re talking about five years or a year. If digital technologies are spinning up so much faster in their adoption levels to a majority in society, you’re going to end up with a workforce that can be displaced as quickly; if you don’t have a plan for that, that’s when the pitchforks and torches are going to come out.

We need to think about not only replacing the income of workers that are displaced, but also the many other things that a job or career provide: managing your time, the social aspects of the job, the sense of meaning and purpose that are so important to self-esteem, your social standing in community, a sense of accomplishment. Simply addressing the economic issue is an incomplete solution.

What surprised you most during your research into digital surveillance?

That’s a topic that I’ve been looking at since the ’90s. I had said that as we grow these databases, we’re going to be able to increasingly surveil people, slicing and dicing them in various ways. And now what people are doing is they’re cross-referencing databases to the point where some of these companies say they have 5,000 to 10,000 data points on every person. Combined with digital connectivity, that enables people to be manipulated and persuaded based on very nuanced concerns, fears or values they might hold. It’s happening in a way that we just don’t have the defense mechanisms to combat, be they digital or psychological.

We have to start realizing that gathering data is one thing, but then how that data is deployed to change behaviors, to change attitudes, to manipulate people is a real concern. On the horizon we’re going to have an increase in things like videos that can be faked, so we can see people saying things they never said, that go beyond critical thinking. You’ll see something and say, “Well, I saw this politician say it out of their own mouth; I saw it with my own eyes” — i.e., “I believe it.” That’s going to further persuade or manipulate people to change their votes, to change their opinions.

People say, “You have to use critical thinking,” but it’s going to move beyond critical thinking. We need to develop markers that identify the provenance of data, and the provenance of identity — who it came from.

Are you conferring with millennial-generation sociologists, and does the generation gap apply to assessments of all this?

I’ve given a number of talks at USC and other universities, in classes, in open forums, in private dinners, and over and over students say this message of untethering resonates with them. It’s what they’re living through and experiencing. … I’m trying to draw the constellations so that people can see that these disparate studies from seemingly different fields are actually all connected under this notion of becoming untethered, that it’s a way of understanding the societal shifts underway.

Julie Albright discusses “Left to Their Own Devices” from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday (March 28) at Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Free admission. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit drjuliealbright.com for more information.

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