Information Combustion

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AI and National Security with Mike Bloomberg

Mike Bloomberg and Danny Crichton in New York at Bloomberg LP. Photo by Bloomberg Staff.
Mike Bloomberg and Danny Crichton in New York at Bloomberg LP. Photo by Bloomberg Staff.

Your humble newsletter writer had a delightful meeting this week with America’s mayor and mensch Mike Bloomberg, where we discussed the opportunities and risks of AI and national security. Bloomberg is currently the chair of the Defense Innovation Board at the Pentagon, which if you haven’t followed, has been focused on the core building blocks of building data infrastructure across the department and lowering barriers to defense innovation. There’s still so much work to be done in readying America for the AI-driven warfighting of the future, but it’s heartening to know that engineers and entrepreneurs like Bloomberg have a seat at the table.

Yes, children deserve access to social media

The bedrock of human progress and ultimate flourishing is free-flowing information. The chaotic frenzy of discovery requires serendipitous juxtaposition of ideas, facts, and theories — both proven and falsified — to mix and meld into a new generation of thoughts in an infinitely-braided tapestry of intellectual threads. Fashions ebb and flow, ideas are neutered before dominating, and there’s a stochastic nihilism in the search for patterns on when discoveries will finally hit (as Jason Crawford of The Roots of Progress explored, the components of a bike were available for millennia before it was finally invented).

Information is not enough of course — there have to be rigorous systems of debate coupled with a culture of skepticism to mold that clay of raw facts and fire them into the refined theories that deserve widespread respect (I’m reminded of Jonathan Rauch’s “The Constitution of Knowledge”). But the key ingredient — before anything else — is access to the wealth of human knowledge in all of its forms.

So it is with increasing alarm that governments are locking down information, and that there is a growing political consensus in the United States and throughout the world for blocking access to human expression.

The latest example came from Florida, which passed a law this week that would ban access to social media accounts by minors under the age of 14, even with parental consent. In the American education system, that age lies somewhere in the last two years of middle school. Under the law, 14- and 15-year-olds (freshman and sophomore high school students) would require parental consent to open an account.

This is a ban on accounts, not access. Children can still view public pages on social networks like Facebook and TikTok, they just can’t sign up and start to build their own networks or interact with many of the features of these platforms. Obviously, that restriction makes these platforms quite limited in their utility, since the ability to customize the content is pretty much the whole point.

Social media has been in the crosshairs the past few years amid a growing oeuvre of books and psychology studies showing that online media is causing pervasive mental health harm to people, and particularly children. The latest book in this lineup is “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness” by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who talked a bit about the grounding of the book on a “Securities” podcast last year. In short, the algorithms powering social networks lead to human unhappiness by highlighting disparities, intensifying emotions, and breaking apart the in-person connections that provably make humans happy.

In response to such research, politicians are increasingly moving away from regulating the product decisions of social media companies to outright bans. This week’s Florida law is an example of this new approach. The law identifies certain features of a social media service to be considered eligible for regulation under the law, including the ability to upload content, the length of time children spend on the site and whether the site features an algorithm with “addicting” features (auto-play videos, as an example). What’s different from past efforts is that these addicting features aren’t being targeted for regulation themselves, but account creation is.

Notably, kids under 14 are banned from having a social media account, even with parental consent. The idea is that the overwhelming demand by children for account access means that parents can no longer be considered responsible for managing their children’s time, and so the government must intervene on their behalf.

Like any technology, social media and the internet are products that afford a wide range of uses to people. The vast majority using TikTok or Facebook are using it for entertainment and to socialize with friends, often hours a day based on the latest time-use studies. There are indeed intellectual communities on these platforms, ranging from scientists and specialists discussing their fields to creative friends exchanging notes and videos about their latest work and soliciting feedback. Admittedly, this isn’t the mainstream use of these platforms, and so the argument is that there isn’t any real intellectual loss for young students that comes with an account ban. After all, you can visit Wikipedia, news services, and most research resources without running foul of this law.

Yet, removing the social dynamics of information and that “chaotic frenzy of discovery” is precisely what removing access to social media does. Consider services like X (Twitter) and Reddit, where communities can form organically across the web and connect people with similar interests. While both sites have their controversies, they are also home to flourishing communities of builders and scientists who share the knowledge of what they are discovering including to, yes, children who are curious about everything from rocketry to electrical engineering.

But our concept of social media still remains too constrained. Consider more professional repository hubs like GitHub or Lux’s own Hugging Face, which is the de facto platform for collaboration around machine learning models. These sites have “push notifications” that “inform a user about specific activities or events related to the user’s account.” Maybe they won’t trip the Florida law’s time requirement for children (“Ten percent or more of the daily active users who are younger than 16 years of age spend on average 2 hours per day or longer on the online forum, website, or application”) and so will be excluded, although I wouldn’t be willing to take that wager.

Right now, there are thousands of children dreaming about the potential of artificial intelligence, learning and thinking and building the future here and wanting to be part of one of the great transformational epochs that humanity has ever produced. Why would we want to do anything that might dampen that curiosity and passion through laws that force these children to log off and … do something else?

The challenge of regulating speech of course is that the U.S. government and subsidiary states and agencies can’t really pick what speech is allowed and what isn’t, and so they have to write laws focused on specific functions or time and place rules that will exceed court scrutiny. So in our rash attempt to stop children from cyberbullying each other on Instagram, we are also cutting out the many positive examples of social media that encourage children to engage with their own futures.

It’s discouraging to watch the growing censorship of social media in the United States and how that parallels similar moves in China. China has been on a campaign the last five years to drastically reduce the time children spend playing video games by mandating age-verified logins, banning children from playing games for more than an hour or two a week, and preventing spending on various business models like tips during livestreaming. The hope is that by controlling children’s time, the state can push children to focus more on schoolwork, pro-social behavior as well as ideological education initiatives.

In both countries, we are increasingly seeing children (and even parents!) as lacking agency, with the government empowered to direct and control their intellectual activities. Yet, that feels like precisely one of the root causes of the mental health problems that children are experiencing these days: the inability to control their world, decide on their course in life, and have any agency to do what they want to do. By taking choices away, we are only proving their sense of powerlessness and reinforcing the existential crises many children seem to be suffering from.

Children don’t need to be so mollycoddled, and certainly not by the state. Technology platforms like Minecraft and Roblox have shown that children can imagine spectacular worlds when afforded the right tools and constraints to express their creativity and share it with peers. After all, about half of the users on Roblox are estimated to be under the age of 12, out of more than 200 million monthly actives. Perhaps the answer is that most social media is actually reasonably decent, and just a small handful of admittedly popular platforms are the exception?

I don’t want to minimize the mental health crisis among teens, or the terrible situations that children can be led to on social media. But I do want to highlight that much like media technologies of the past, social media is today’s most critical set of tools for self-expression, learning, discovery, and maturation. Access to information and to forums for debate shouldn’t be roped off for the next generation. Human flourishing never begins with the censor’s red pen.

Lux Recommends

  • I haven’t read it (so I am treading in dangerous territory) but I did enjoy the review of Wayne Kalayjian’s new book “Saving Michelangelo's Dome: How Three Mathematicians and a Pope Sparked an Architectural Revolution.” From the review, “The book’s central claim is that, in the course of solving the vexing problem of cracks in the dome that threatened imminent collapse, the three mathematicians effectively founded the field of modern engineering. As obvious as it may seem to us now in an atmosphere of burgeoning interest in math and science, the idea of inviting mathematicians to look for creative solutions was by no means an obvious one in the 18th century.”
  • Our scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman enjoyed this incredible story and interactive website from James Somers and Edwin Morris on “The Baffling Intelligence of a Single Cell” also known as E. coli chemotaxis. “We tend to think of a colony of something like E. coli as an undifferentiated evil goo, each bacterium identical to its neighbors. But people who’ve studied these organisms under the microscope observe a surprising amount of individual personality.”
  • A popular hit on Twitter and one that also hits close to home, Theo Baker pens an introspective feature from the West Coast in The Atlantic on “The War at Stanford” over the increasingly polarized life of the once-idyllic campus. How can an enlightened institution of debate still function when so many minds can never be changed?
  • Continuing The Atlantic’s takeover of Lux Recommends (and maybe Sam was reading my mind this week), but he highlights Ian Bogost’s latest column on “Social Media Is Not What Killed the Web.” “Because every click brought more delay, one clicked more deliberately. Browsers displayed visited links in a different color (purple by default, instead of blue). They still do this, but nobody cares anymore; using the OldWeb browser reminded me that those purple links helped you navigate a strange and arduous terrain. Yes, that’s where I meant to go, or Nope, already been there.”
  • Finally, because why not, in a time when media has been facing an evisceration of economics and status, The Atlantic has seemed to grab hold of a winning formula. “The Atlantic’s revenue grew 10% last year to close to $100 million, and the publication has nearly one million total subscribers, split equally among people with digital-only and print subscriptions.” As I wrote in “TechCrunch+ Termination,” subscriptions are the core of a healthy and sustainable future for media (as much as we all hate them).

That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.