The Age of Atomization

Flynn Coleman / May 5, 2023

Flynn Coleman is a writer, an international human rights lawyer, and a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government & The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She is also a Visiting Fellow at Yale University, with an appointment at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. She is the author of A Human Algorithm.

Max Gruber / Better Images of AI / Clickworker 3d-printed / CC-BY 4.0

In large parts of the world, the project of the 20th century was to build mass society. Mass production; mass industrialization. Along the way, we invented the atomic bomb, waged world wars, opened public libraries and parks, and launched a quasi-global world order –– one filled with fast-moving transportation, telecommunications, and geopolitics. Mid-century begat the Information Age, the digitization of knowledge, attention economies, and machines that can “think.”

Humans have, to date, exhibited a remarkable capacity to adapt to technological disruption. We have come to grant prodigious amounts of trust to machines, to do things like operate markets, count money and votes, and fly us safely around the world (and into space). While modernization is not without its costs, such as environmental pollution and the amplification of many inequities, as we have gradually integrated our inventions, we have, for the most part also managed, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to collectively bend the moral arc of technology’s role in society toward justice.

However, today’s emerging technologies, whose creators pledged to unify us via the small mobile devices in our hands, are instead revealing a version of society that appears incapable of sustaining such a trajectory. Consequently, I now believe we are watching a new era unfold: the Age of Atomization.

Many years ago, when people lived long distances from each other, without the means to communicate or the ability to easily meet except in person, we were cloistered and atomized. For a great period of time, even after we began to migrate, we were mostly unaware that many others even existed. It was amongst these kinds of limited interactions that our mammalian minds were shaped.

But, in the last few millennia, as communities came together, locally and eventually globally, civilizations began to grow and spread as we traveled far and wide to eat, to trade, to settle, to fight, and to move again. We invented writing systems, exchanged ideas, and our populations multiplied exponentially. By the 15th century, Gutenberg’s printing press made literature and science more widely available and possible to be read in the vernacular by the masses –– no longer only for the elite. After the Industrial Revolution, advances in our modes of communication dramatically accelerated. In just the last couple of centuries, we went from semaphores, to telegraphs, to radio, to telephones, to television, to the internet.

Our brains, designed to evolve over millions of years, have struggled to keep up –– but as we assimilated each technological advance, it was largely still necessary to connect physically in most workplaces, schools, and the public square; to be kind to our neighbors, to find consensus, and to rally around a common truth.

But in the last decade or so, as reality has morphed for many of us into more and more of a virtual form, our personas are increasingly fracturing into mere bits of data –– to be sold to the highest bidder.

The result is that today, much like our ancient ancestors, we exist in a cycle of mass isolation and civil fragmentation –– atomization –– but this time it is a mirage of our own creation. The oasis before us is what the internet could have been: a universally-accessible, digital public square where we all can gather to exchange ideas; to debate; to socialize; to come together. Something like an online public park, town hall, or library. But the actuality of the internet today is that connection and convening is yielding to convenience, consumerism, and combustion.

The societal schisms emerging are stark. Our lives are becoming over-personalized, over-stylized, and overly dependent on our machines. Democratic processes, correspondence, entertainment, and knowledge acquisition are all increasingly relegated to our avatars –– points on a map devoid of true human contact. Much of today’s dating is now done via digital apps; to shop or check out a book from the library you often no longer need to leave the house. You can grab your coffee via the Starbucks drive-through app and attend college online. Even divorce is now being officiated in the Metaverse. The third spaces where we have customarily congregated, found community, and found ourselves, are vanishing –– going the way of record stores.

Technology that was promoted to afford us greater mobility is confining us to cages we seem unable to escape. We increasingly reside now in our own metaphorical and digital cubicles. Your podcasts, your TikTok channels, your news, your social feed; these hold the algorithms that feed the beast –– and they are individualized, customized, and know you better than you know yourself.

This complex machinery now takes the information you give it, or the data it mines via surveillance, and then aggregates, curates, and analyzes it. It can predict and influence which shoes you might want to buy, when you might be ready to switch phone carriers, or how you will vote, all while convincingly letting you believe you are making these choices yourself.

I suggest we begin with a more modest ambition –– that we start by building an array of digital third places –– non-commercial online destinations organized by people and algorithms without profit motives and embedded with humanity.

You treat a new face cream hawked online as self-care, believing it unnecessary to seek your doctor’s advice or look for a real sense of care and belonging in a community. You see a germ of an idea in a conspiracy theory and cling to it for comfort in a chaotic and terrifying world, finding bogus solace by seemingly uncovering a secret “fact.” You live on a pre-ordained train that steams forward in an infinite algorithmic scroll, passing by serendipity, weak ties, coincidental (and necessary) connections with strangers, and a place where we all belong. People have been doing ill-advised things for time immemorial, but in our interconnected digital environments now it's measured in petabytes.

The promise of the internet was that it would enable us to explore the world’s treasures –– our art and legacy, history, and wisdom. That it would be a place to hold democratic debates and get comedic relief, experience outstanding talent, music, mastery; enjoy beauty, poetry, philosophy (and cat memes); and a place to learn from a random internet dad’s how-to videos and keep up with magnificent scientific discoveries –– a perpetual and self-renewing library card to an electronic Alexandria’s Library. (And, yes, ok, also a place to shop, gamble, be a voyeur, and socialize).

Our communication technologies have allowed us to stay in touch with loved ones and educate ourselves in a myriad of new ways. These tools have afforded us virtual access to worlds we previously only dreamed of traveling to; and natural language models are now taking us there with verbal commands alone. We are, however, paying a very steep (and mostly unseen) price for these advancements.

A recent report from the CDC describes an alarming mental health crisis among teenage girls that is in part, directly attributable to social media. Social networks originally intended to bring us together have begun to drive us apart. Dissimilarities, extreme content, fighting, and sensationalism generate more likes than nuance, courageous discourse, and commonalities. While online connectivity enables a maker culture for many budding entrepreneurs and artists, it also extends to fabricating your own truth and stealing from those same artists. In these mostly unregulated spaces, we don’t have to intentionally pursue ideologies –– they find us. We keep asking why we are now so politically polarized –– the answer is because we can be: we can root for our team now without even having to play with another.

Although we often intentionally elect not to see it, so many of us sit in digital cubicles now –– often only with people “like us” or who we “swiped” on. Once we log in, we are often fed more and more extreme content –– and so we are not only siloed, but we are also being boiled in water like the fabled frog, the heat rising without our noticing, believing we are selecting the videos, posts, and memes we see. Even outside of our internet bubbles, conventional news media is scripted for targeted audiences, so you can continue to avoid differing views..

Media technology is designed this way because it generates the most traffic, and therefore the most ad revenue, putting billions into the pockets of a small cadre of pseudo-king tech and media titans and their court of shareholders. The self-appointed gods of capitalism demand our sacrifice: they need for us to endlessly click and scroll, not to log off, tune out, and sip coffee in real life with new friends. Our attention is just a commodity to be mined. These corporate behemoths hold the keys to the code, which we tacitly acceded to their control when we first substituted smartphones for parks.

The “digital public square” fantasized and endorsed by Elon Musk and his ilk is now fast becoming more like a videogame skewed to favor “first shooters,” where immoderate content reigns, free speech has been weaponized, and our online world is a constant battleground.

We are now becoming irreversibly wedded to our electronic devices. And the generative AI tools that have been recently released to great fanfare and that are already being integrated into familiar products will exacerbate our atomization. Unleashing new weapons of misinformation is empowering armies of “promptologists,” a league of large language model parrots who can fabricate convincing content. Musk wants in on the action too, recently announcing he is planning his own GAI business “TruthGPT.” What could go wrong.

It is not the technology’s “alignment risk” that we should be fearing so much as what societal atomization foretells about how we will deploy our technological tools. It is not that we are unaware of the perils. In the United States for example, the recently published National Cyberspace Strategy acknowledges our digital interdependence and urges that we must endeavor to endow our digital ecosystem in a way that reflects our highest values as a society, respects human rights, and encourages trust in democracy and democratic institutions. Much easier said than done though.

I suggest we begin with a more modest ambition –– that we start by building an array of digital third places –– non-commercial online destinations organized by people and algorithms without profit motives and embedded with humanity. Spaces we can visit and communities we can be part of, confident that we will be seen as more than just our data. Projects like New Public, which is encouraging technologists and others to create “healthy digital public spaces,” are prototypes for how we might reinvent online social systems to benefit the greater good.

The most insidious aspect of the Age of Atomization may be that it is very difficult for us to step away, find our overview, and recognize we are going out with the tide. This realization will never appear at the top of our Google searches nor in responses from ChatGPT.

Technology is an inescapable part of our human lineage. But we must become ever more cognizant of its potential harms and consciously endeavor to prevent it from erecting digital walls around us by challenging those who currently rule our online spaces.


Flynn Coleman
Flynn Coleman is a writer, an international human rights lawyer, and a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government & The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She is also a Visiting Fellow at Yale University, with an appointment at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. S...