Letter from the Director

Joe Walther

The pandemic lockdown made us relon our screens for everythingwhether it was good for us or notBut the paradoxes of digital technologies’ effects on individuals and society never went away: How devices and platforms that connect us also exploit us, and potentially harm us. CITS is mounting a major effort to review, evaluate, and present to the public what the best research tells us about the Social Dilemmas of digital technology devices and social media.  


Why us? Well, there’s good journalism out there but also not-so-good, since news often reports what visible people proclaim, who sometimes have a political agenda or want to rile up their constituencies. It echoes government officialsbusiness leaders, and other journalists reportsWhile good reporters check whether a source really said something, they don’t always appraise the evidence behind the issue


Even documentaries like Netflix’s (2020) The Social Dilemma, that raises important issues about techsploitation” frequently devolve into subjective impressions, clichés, and soundbites instead of drawing on well-documented, well-done research. Not that researchers agree, either—they don’t. Some say we urgently need to pull teens away from their smartphonesOthers say that, when it comes the link between smartphone use and increases in teens’ depressionthe research, itself, is badly flawedLeaked research from inside the tech industry, as we have learned, also raises alarm bells.  


That’s why, starting in January 2022, we’re taking on the topic of Social Dilemmas of Technology, through a coordinated set of faculty-led projects, graduate seminars, and undergraduate courses. They’ll involve reviews of the existing research literature, and conduct original research studies, to sort out the best available research-based knowledge, and present it to the public.  We’re exploring issues like (1) How did we get here? What legislation kept the government’s hands off of regulating online media.  (2) How are people tracked as they use the web, and how do companies monetize their tracked activities? (3) What are algorithms, in simple terms, and how do they affect what we see in social media?  Is racism “built in” to some algorithms? (4) Are social media and smartphones really addictive? (5) Do social media cause partisan polarization and echo chambers, and how? (6) How does social media encourage hate speech? (6) What is the effect of screen time, and social media use, on psychological and personal well-being? (7) What’s being done to improve things, by industry, industry critics, and academics?  (8) Knowing about the ills and dangers of digital devices and social media, why don’t individuals change what they’re doing? 


This list is a starting place. Preliminary investigations may lead down other roads. Maybe you have a question we can put on the agenda. Get in touch with us at cits@cits.ucsb.edu if you want to get involved, intellectually, through financial support of our work, or with other ways to support our efforts.


--Joe Walther

Mark and Susan Bertelsen Presidential Chair in Technology and Society

Distinguished Professor of Communication