Is social media ruining the world?

Dramatic political polarization. Rising anxiety and depression. An uptick in teen suicide rates. Misinformation that spreads like wildfire.

The common denominator of all these phenomena is that they’re fueled in part by our seemingly innocuous participation in digital social networking. But how can simple acts like sharing photos and articles, reading the news, and connecting with friends have such destructive consequences?

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“What’s past is prologue.” So says the famed quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, alleging that we can look to what has already happened as an indication of what will happen next.

This idea could be interpreted as being rather bleak; are we doomed to repeat the errors of the past until we correct them? We certainly do need to learn and re-learn life lessons—whether in our work, relationships, finances, health, or other areas—in order to grow as people.

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We’re a long way from the halcyon days of the early internet, when the promise of a decentralized digital communications network meant anyone could talk to anyone without appealing to the gatekeepers. Knowledge would be liberated from elite newsrooms and stodgy old encyclopedia sets. “Information wants to be free” was the slogan of the day.

We’ve since learned “free” information often has a price.

Fast-forward to 2019, when science fiction author Neal Stephenson’s book, Fall; or Dodge in Hell, traces a near future in which the internet is nicknamed the “Miasma.” The digital haves and have-nots are separated by who can afford human “editors” to curate the web, filter out the rubbish, and guard their employers’ identities and information online. There are those privileged enough to float above the noise, selectively dipping in for reliable information, and those drowning in, and being driven mad by, the mass of disinformation and propaganda lurking below.

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