Two Takes on Software and Society

The Atlantic published two distinct articles on the impact of software on society that are highly recommended reading. The first article illustrates the unique impact the last fifteen years of technology (not just social media but tablets, touch screens, video) have had on the generation just entering the workforce and how those impacts are altering our social and economic arc. The second article written by a professor of computer science addresses the structure of computer science programs and the potential that their very design may be shortchanging those entering the field of a wider perspective required to leverage computer science in ethical ways. It's a fortunate coincidence that the two articles were published so closely together. They are essentially addressing a common set of dynamics at work.

Generational Issues with Child Smartphone Use

The first article written by Jonathan Haidt is an abridged version of his recently published book The Anxious Generation - How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. The article is available here The magazine version and presumably the book present these key conclusions:

  • the tremendous share of "screen time" spent by children not only on classic "social media" apps like Facebook and TikTok but games and even educational software are reflections of addictive behavior
  • addictive behaviors inevitably alter and conflict with the development of communication abilities in real-world, human-to-human scenarios
  • the "opportunity cost" of screen time is far greater than parents and children are recognizing, in the form of reduced sleep, loss of relationship forming / maintaining skills, horrible attention spans for any sort of work, etc.

Haidt starts out his analysis with a more anecdotal observation made in an interview with none other than Sam Altman, head of OpenAI and another entrepreneuer Patrick Collson.

Surveys show that members of Gen Z are shyer and more risk averse than previous generations, too, and risk aversion may make them less ambitious. In an interview last May, OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman and Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison noted that, for the first time since the 1970s, none of Silicon Valley’s preeminent entrepreneurs are under 30. “Something has really gone wrong,” Altman said. In a famously young industry, he was baffled by the sudden absence of great founders in their 20s.

It must be noted as a possible counter to this observation that the "sudden absence of great founders in their 20s" could also be explained in part by an absence of adequate anti-trust regulation against the top five to ten technology companies which results in them gobbling up any startup whose creation appears capable of growing exponentially to compete with an established monopoly. It takes a lot more willpower to hold out and stay independent to BECOME a billionaire twenty-something when the existing billionaires are buying you out at age 26 for $50 million when you still aren't sure your idea is worth $10 million.

Still, the larger point seems to fit this evolution in generational experience quite well. Haidt follows that anecdotal observation about this generational impact on innovation patterns measured at the billion dollar level with more sobering statistics about self-reported instances of various mental health issues in these new generations of students. Self-harm incidents requiring emergency room visits for girls ranged from 100-170 per 10,000 between 2000 and 2008 but starting in 2009, that rate steadily climbed to a rate of 600 per 10,000 girls by 2020. The percentage of freshman college students reporting psychiatric disorders (beyond ADHD and learning disabilities which were reported separately) jumped from about 3.9% in 2010 to 14% in 2018.

Haidt makes the insightful point that it isn't technically the design of social media apps ALONE that contributes to these problems. Facebook pre-dated the smartphone by six years but wasn't nearly as addictive because a computer had to be used for access, naturally limiting exposure time. Once smartphones became normal for children to have, the smartphones were available for uncontested use 24x7 and use of apps like Facebook skyrocketed in lock step. "Screen time" for children with smart phones is currently averaging 5-7 hours per day. As Haidt points out, those 5-7 hours impose enormous opportunity costs in the form of other activities better suited for learning and social development that are skipped in order to "follow friends" and "track likes", etc.

Haidt's magazine piece goes on at length to explain the mechanisms by which he believes these new gadgets and apps interfere with brain development and makes a strong case for public efforts to immediately re-think the use of these devices, in particular by children. Haidt doesn't make the analogy but I will... Imagine you notice a precipitous drop in test scores and a jump in medical expenses for all children above the age of ten in your community, all starting in the same year. Rich families, middle class families, poor families. All races. All ethnicities. Imagine learning the date of that sea change corresponded EXACTLY to a change in ingredients in the pizza being served in the school cafeterias. Is it a good idea to continue serving that pizza? Even if the students like the pizza?

In this tortured analogy, the students don't even seem to like the pizza that much. Haidt notes that teens are not inexplicably miserable in their social media driven life without a clue to the source of their perpetual angst. They are VISCERALLY aware of its source and toxicity and a large share actively dislike it but nonetheless feel compelled to participate. It's exactly analogous to adults who despise LinkedIn but if you are looking for a job, it looks highly suspect to future employers if a candidate has no profile present on LinkedIn.

Haidt addresses immediate changes he recommends for individual parents then maps those changes to a larger set of problems required to get government and society at large to learn from this problem and alter our collective course. Again, highly recommended reading.

How Should Computer Science Curriculums Be Designed?

The second Atlantic article regarding the impact of software on individuals was written by Ian Bogost, a Professor of Computer Science at Washington University. The article is entitled Universities have a Computer Science Problem and is available here It addresses a topic that at first would seem more philosophical than pragmatic -- where is the most appropriate place to house a computer science curriculum in a modern college or university?

As the field first developed in the 1960s, some universities chose to locate their new Computer Science department within their engineering school since initial work in the field was so "close to the machine" using vacuum tubes and later transistors to reflect the 0/1, true/false, on/off nature of the logic being built and thus similar to electrical engineering topics. Other schools chose to treat the new discipline as a new exercise in the analysis of pure logic and instead chose to locate it within a mathematics department which traditionally delivered such coursework. (Interestingly, Ian Bogost himself started at USC in its Computer Science program but switched majors, eventually earning Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees in Philosophy and Comparative Literature.)

Bogost ties this early confusion over the appropriate home of computer science as an academic field of study directly to problems in modern society. The existence of algorithmic trading in financial markets, applications and games (intentionally or unintentionally) designed to be addictive, or just important systems affecting public health and safety designed with an appalling lack of discipline regarding their accuracy and safety all illustrate the dangers of such a crucial discipline lacking any concrete mooring to other disciplines.

Bogost has been discussing this concern with schools across the country who are trying to adjust or re-orient computer science curriculums in their entirety to accomodate the demand for CS coursework, even for students not willing to pursue it as a major. As with any other discipline, there are nuances to the field that won't be covered in a CS 101 class or a class teaching Python for Data Scientists wanting to land a job running some Fortune 500 firm's data analytics teams looking for product ideas from web clicks. But Bogost points out the same concern works in both directions. There are dangers in students graduating with degrees in Computer Science with little training in other disciplines like accounting, law, finance, etc.

Left entirely to themselves, computer scientists can forget that computers are supposed to be tools that help people. Georgia Tech’s College of Computing worked “because the culture was always outward-looking. We sought to use computing to solve others’ problems,” Guzdial said. But that may have been a momentary success. Now, at Michigan, he is trying to rebuild computing education from scratch, for students in fields such as French and sociology. He wants them to understand it as a means of self-expression or achieving justice—and not just a way of making software, or money.

We live in a data-driven world with unprecedented economic power and social influence concentrated with a small number of corporations. Addressing these concerns and devising curriculums that ensure personnel working in these fields comprehend the impact of the technologies they help design and operate is vital to correcting many of the problems we face. Did the software engineers at Facebook initially comprehend the damage their application might create? Maybe, maybe not. Do those software engineers understand the damage now? They certainly do. So how are they responding? How is the public responding?



This should be seen in another light. Reporting of problems has jumped among other things such as autism. That does not mean there is more autism.

The reporting does not mean there are worse problems. Meaning culturally reporting has become more prominent which is part of being on social media. Young people can explore expression and report.

Minority groups also report more frequently now.

I am not making excuses. I am saying things have not necessarily changed but the reporting frequency has changed.

The addiction to small screens would be dual diagnosed very often with other problems.

BTW this is playing havoc with guys who have no clue who they are but do not want to be bigger losers behind minorities and women. Misogyny and racism have risen because losers do not like to face it. There is a revolt going on.



Mathematics is used in grocery stores and also to study the Big Bang. Should mathematics be taught in astronomy, in trade, or in nutrition?

Universal Turing Machine

A Turing Machine is the mathematical tool equivalent to a digital computer. It was suggested by the mathematician Turing in the 30s, and has been since then the most widely used model of computation in computability and complexity theory.

The Coder

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