Josh Hawley, the junior US Senator from Missouri, is waging a small war against Silicon Valley. Twice this summer Hawley has introduced legislation that targets social media corporations’ out-sized role in the lives of Americans. His latest bill is perhaps the most straightforward legal challenge to the biggest social media firms yet. The SMART Act would tightly regulate social media technology, forcing developers to make specific changes that dilute the addictive and omnipresent qualities of the apps.
In a May lecture that was published by First Things, Hawley lays out his case against Silicon Valley. He warns that Big Tech firms are pocketing obscene profits by maximizing addiction and carefully overseeing a monopoly on news and information. All the while, the American workforce is being populated by users diagnosed with elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and inability to focus. Hawley concludes by reflecting that the culture being shaped by social media technology is an “economy that does not value the things that matter.” Hawley: “That, I want to suggest to you, is something that we cannot afford. It is something that we cannot allow, and it is within our power to change it. And that is the great challenge and task of our time.”
David French, an evangelical columnist at National Review for whom I have great respect, dismisses Hawley’s legislative prescriptions as a misguided attempt to control consumer habits from Washington. French believes Hawley’s bills do address real problems, but establish a dangerous precedent for a “Republican Daddy State.” Writing in First Things, Jon Schweppe rebukes French and other conservative critics of Hawley’s proposals: “Historically, our politicians have determined that government should have a role when corporations exploit consumers by putting their physical or psychological health at risk,” he notes. “This is especially true when those consumers happen to be children.”
It’s hard to resist evaluating Hawley’s proposed laws and the debate over them in light of the larger, intra-conservative kerfuffle (also starring First Things and French!) that’s emerged in the Trump years. On the surface this looks like yet another installment in the “What is the proper role of government in the formation of virtuous citizens” question, an issue that takes on radically different shape depending not just on your politics but on your ecclesiology. Because I think David French is right about justification by faith and the mission of the church, and I think the editors of First Things are mostly wrong about them, I tend to gravitate toward a Frenchian perspective on statism.
But Jon Schweppe is right about something crucial: The question is not whether government will regulate the behavior of the citizenry, the question is how. If a legal minimum age to drink alcohol is an acceptable manifestation of a “daddy state” (and to Schweppe’s point, I don’t think any conservative columnists are arguing otherwise), why not proportionate regulations on a consumer product (social media) arguably even more omnipresent and accessible to children than alcohol?
French is right that overreaching regulation, even to fix a serious cultural malaise, could and probably would have long-term consequences. On the other hand, we’re almost certainly already signed up for long-term consequences from the overabundance of digital technology. Worse, functional monopolies held by Apple and Google make it almost impossible for creative solutions to supplant existing business models. “Digital literacy” programs come with the moral and legal authority of government to the benefit of manufacturers, all the while sites like YouTube, extolled as educational tools, oversee an algorithm-based disaster that targets children with disturbing content.
Though I share French’s view of federal intervention, “Daddy State” is a an epithet that fails to reckon with how consumer habits are conditioned and even constrained by the complex relationship between Silicon Valley and the information age. The latter is an unchangeable revolution; there is no rewinding the clock on the internet, and nostalgia is not a synonym for virtue. The former, however, is nothing more than a corporate culture that should be viewed with no less skepticism than pornography industry. What Hawley understands is that our experience of the information age has become cripplingly dependent on a fistful of companies that use jargon and confused lawmakers to exploit loopholes. Michael Brendan Doughtery (writing in National Review, no less!) was exactly right to say that Facebook is a media and publishing company, regardless of what its executives say or the exemptions and allowances they request.
But there is something missing from Hawley’s agenda. The senator is eager to handcuff developers with laws about “infinite scroll” and time limits. This is interesting, but it plays into Big Tech’s hands. The problem with targeting granular technologies is that such technologies are always on the cusp of changing anyway. What does infinite scroll look like in, say, an augmented reality channel? Unless you’re well versed in the psychology and coding of this tech, you probably have no idea, and if there’s one thing Mark Zuckerberg proved, it’s that befuddling aging Congressmen with terminology almost any 13 year old would recognize isn’t that difficult.
What Hawley’s efforts lack is an element of stigma. Rather than trying to play the developer’s game, legal efforts to help our tech addiction should try to put a social stigma on always looking at your phone, or spending hours on YouTube, or anonymous message-based sites that foster radicalization. There should be a social shame to digital addiction that is comparable to the stigma around pornography, which is mediated through age-gate laws, laws that protect the depiction of minors, and other statutes, as well as practices in the private sector (such as cordoned off “adult” sections). While of course most of us would say that social stigma around pornography is far too weak, since pornography is still too common and accessible, there is reason to think that promoting a stigma around tech sickness would be better and more effective than targeting the zeroes and ones of software.
In a brilliant essay almost twenty years ago, Roger Scruton pointed out that the contemporary West has introduced law and politics as a replacement stigma and custom. This is decidedly not how societies past operated:
In almost all matters that touched upon the core requirements of social order, they [generations past] believed that the genial pressure of manners, morals, and customs—enforced by the various forms of disapproval, stigma, shame, and reproach—was a more powerful guarantor of civilized and lawful behavior than the laws themselves. Inner sanctions, they argued, more dependably maintain society than such external ones as policemen and courts.
Stigma is not effective at eliminating a social ill. But that’s precisely the point. There are some social ills that cannot be radically destroyed, and efforts to do so may seriously damage the underlying social fabric. Scruton uses sexual morality as an example of a communal virtue that protects the vulnerable when it is enforced from within, but tends to turn abusive and corrupt when such enforcement is outsourced to the governing authorities. Of course, there is no hard and fast dichotomy between social stigma and the law, because the law teaches as well as restricts; thus, men who abandon their families must pay child support under the threat of the law.
Might the same principle work for responding to the crisis of digital addiction? Restricting social media to legal adults, for example, would not eliminate its addictive qualities or even fully prevent children from using the services, but requiring a credit card number or some other age-verification tool would create a “mature audiences only” stigma that highlights social media’s addictiveness and tendencies toward vice. Another stigma would be requiring that smartphones or internet-capable tablets not be sold to anyone under 16, and requiring parents purchasing such equipment for minors to sign informational disclaimers about addiction, psychological development, distracted driving, etc. Without restricting speech, such laws would introduce moderate hurdles to using such tech, making it especially difficult for children to have their own private digital lives.
We need a digital stigma. Rather than assuming that mobile, interactive technology is inherently valuable, we should assume that Silicon Valley’s products are comparable to cigarettes and alcohol: Not for children, not for habitual use, and certainly not for tax exemptions and public school programs. This of course doesn’t solve the problem of distraction sickness, nor does it even guarantee that parents would have the will to protect their kids. But it would strike a blow in the cause of cognitive and emotional flourishing, and puts Silicon Valley billionaires off the pedestal of philosopher kings and in the corner, where they belong.