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How we can avert our society’s drift toward disaster by charting a different course

How we can avert our society’s drift toward disaster by charting a different course

Castro Street, the main drag in downtown Mountain View, California, my hometown, the birthplace of Silicon Valley and the headquarters of Google.

In 2015, I began experiencing the world in a different, less enjoyable way. It started with occasional bouts of nervousness that I didn’t recognize as anxiety — because I’d never experienced clinical anxiety before. In fact, 2015 was preceded by the happiest, most fulfilling decade of my life. 

These bouts, while only occasional, were significant enough that I began to question myself, the world around me, and my relationship to it in a deeper way than normal.

Next, that anxiety was deepened by dramatic changes on Facebook. I had been a heavy user since co-founding Shareable six years earlier. My Facebook feed became flooded with ridiculous, obviously false “news” stories that were clearly designed to shock or enrage. The high volume and low quality of these articles were deeply puzzling. Why were people sharing such crap? And why was Facebook allowing it to proliferate? 

In response, I changed my Facebook settings to limit my exposure. However, I missed the bigger picture — that billions of people were likely experiencing the same toxic brew, and that could have dramatic, society-scale consequences. 

This was just before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which, along with #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and the rise of the alt right and identity politics, laid bare deep social divisions that added to my unease. Social and other media not only exposed divisions based on gender, class, race, religion, geography, and ideology, they seemed to make them worse. The U.S. was not alone in experiencing upheaval. The U.K., for one, began its meltdown over Brexit around this time. 

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