MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER Simon O. Sinek has made his name by promoting a self-help program for the digital age. The best-selling author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (2009), Sinek got his start working for some of the largest marketing firms in the world, eventually founding his own business and hitting the speaker circuit. His motivational videos, in which he tackles issues of leadership and corporate success, have racked up millions of views. Although he seems to be a legitimate advocate for education and media literacy, he is at bottom a company man who preaches that meaningful work gives life its purpose, employing a signature faux-deep mélange of business speak and bootstrappism. And even though he criticized Donald Trump before the 2016 presidential election, Sinek was reportedly paid $98,000 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in early 2018 to boost the morale of its agents and teach leadership skills. He knew, as any good corporate leader would, that business savvy speaks across the aisle — and often turns a blind eye to jingoism.
Like other entrepreneurs whose platform of choice is the TED Talk, Sinek preaches a corporate philosophy that resonates in a society bent on accruing massive wealth, achieving bodily perfection, and engaging with reality through media. But Sinek touches on something profoundly important in an episode of Inside Quest, a video series that features other self-help gurus and corporate influencers spreading a virulent ideology of individualism. In his interview, Sinek attempts to explain the millennial generation, an endeavor many others have failed at. Although his mission is to make the corporate experience more enjoyable for all workers, Sinek’s assertion that young people are being exposed too early in life to extremely powerful digital technologies is apt. Speaking about the addictive properties of dopamine, Sinek argues: “We have age restrictions on smoking, gambling, and alcohol, and we have no age restrictions on social media and cellphones. It’s the equivalent of opening up the liquor cabinet and saying to our teenagers, ‘Hey, by the way, this adolescence thing — if it gets you down…’.” When adolescents feel depressed or lonely, they can turn to social media instead of other substances for a boost. Too many hits, Sinek claims, and young people may become dependent on social media for their very well-being.
Sinek refers to a widespread fear of children becoming addicted to technology. It is certainly the case that social media usage has been found to undermine well-being, especially in adolescents, but further research is needed to determine the extent to which social media causes, rather than exacerbates, mental health problems. But it is important to note that social media differs from other dopamine-inducing activities in one crucial way Sinek overlooks. Unlike gambling or alcohol, social media is a tool. It can be used for both personal and institutional promotion. Individuals can engage with social media for branding and relationship building as extensively as companies do. In fact, much of Western society relies heavily on a tool that Sinek believes is destroying the lives of young people. These youths use their social media accounts to keep pace with the brands they purchase, the musicians they listen to, the celebrities they follow, and, increasingly, the schools they attend. Students communicate with each other through certain apps and interact with their schools through others.
Educational social media apps, such as ClassDojo, have become ubiquitous throughout America’s schools. On ClassDojo, students have their own profiles but not for the same reasons they have, say, Instagram accounts. ClassDojo isn’t designed to construct a personal brand or to forge online relationships. Instead, it functions as a way for teachers and parents to control student behavior in the classroom.
Financed by angel investors, hacktivists, and cyberlibertarians, ClassDojo keeps parents knowledgeable about what goes on in their kids’ schools. For example, a teacher can snap a photo of the class doing arts and crafts and then post the picture to the app for parents to see. And when a student gets out of her desk without permission, the teacher can select that student’s avatar on an interactive whiteboard, dock points in front of the entire class, and send a notification to her parent or guardian. Parents thus know what their children are doing at school on any given day because they receive a steady flow of information from the app.
In the digital age, educational apps like ClassDojo have intensified the impulse to condition young people to act like adults as early as possible. Now, students are actively integrated into a system that collects data about their behavior, quantifies it, and packages it for parents and the school itself. In an era of data rooms and standardized testing, when education has become a rigorous science, ClassDojo may seem like nothing new. After all, students have been ruthlessly quantified since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. But ClassDojo seeks to create docile bodies in the classroom, and it does this by monitoring and collecting enormous amounts of data on students. It also teaches students to understand life as being inseparable from digital technology, and it normalizes both surveillance and the kind of isolating individualism that can cause mental illness.
Because Simon Sinek is part of the culture that educates young people to compete and climb the corporate ladder, he does not openly acknowledge the fact that digital technologies, deployed at school or in the workplace, often instantiate the very values for which he advocates. Sinek is right to bemoan the lack of meaningful relationships formed in the digital age. But how can we unplug from our personal accounts and still avoid the psychological effects of social media like ClassDojo? How can we commit to digital detox when social media is a crucial tool for entrepreneurs, writers, musicians, and self-help gurus? Can a person be the kind of self-made baron Sinek encourages young people to become without the promotional benefits of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook?
Social media doesn’t just worsen loneliness and depression by manipulating dopamine; it also restructures the way we work and live. Some might resist a social experience that mandates we always be “on,” constantly promoting across multiple social media platforms, perpetually digitally engaged. And now, this restructuring begins at school. Our present digital communications technologies are disrupting the behaviors of young people, training them for lives and careers dependent on digital devices.
One significant offshoot of the anxiety-fueled existence social media has helped to engender is a pronounced turn toward nostalgia, to a life lived more simply, without distraction and responsibility. This trend is widespread throughout Western culture, to the degree that it is almost impossible to encounter any kind of mainstream cultural artifact that doesn’t remediate the past in some way.
Nostalgia isn’t particularly unique to our time. The term itself dates back to the 17th century; since its coining, psychologists have determined that nostalgia is a universal emotion that cuts across cultures and time periods. What is fairly new about 21st-century nostalgia is that its main object of yearning is childhood. TV shows like Stranger Things (2016–) and Everything Sucks! (2018–) and films like the It remake (2017) and Steven Spielberg’s retro-dump Ready Player One (2018) are little more than nostalgia vehicles that remediate the childhood experience of bygone decades. Each paints childhood as a halcyon age of freedom and angst, filled with the usual trials and tribulations of adolescence and school daze. But nowhere in these media representations are there data rooms or ClassDojo. In Ready Player One, when a maniacal CEO tempts a youthful gamer to join his megacorporation, he promises to “convert” all the online public schools to “replicas from The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller.” The gamer ultimately rebuffs the offer but is nonetheless excited at the prospect of attending one of these fantasy schools. When society has collapsed, as in Ready Player One, one can only survive by fantasy.
As a teacher, I dream of schools without surveillance, armed guards, and ClassDojo. What a relief it would be to attend Shermer High School, the setting of John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985), a place without biometric locks or behavior-controlling apps, where the only worry is whether your peers will accept you, not whether you’re being watched by closed-circuit television, and where police officers don’t tackle students to the ground. These schools, of course, are only representations. They never existed. But they symbolize a burning desire among many to drop out of the present and enroll in the past.
An entire nostalgia industry has taken shape under the shadow of our deadening control society, where solutions to social problems involve increased monitoring, and public figures teach the gospel of corporate speak as the means to achieve personal fulfillment. In reaction, the nostalgia industry repackages representations of pre-9/11 pop culture and makes a killing in the process. But this business model is a predominantly regressive reaction to living in a society buttressed by a lucrative surveillance economy and plagued with rampant social anxiety, depression, and loneliness — all disorders that, according to Sinek, are caused in some part by social media.
At the conclusion of the Inside Quest episode, Sinek claims that the onus is on corporations to teach the younger generation how to find meaning and fulfillment in life, because the rest of society has failed to do so. He advocates for policies prohibiting cell phones in conference rooms. Such moves, he believes, will reconnect broken social ties and will spark innovation.
But Sinek’s solutions to the ills of the digital age do not hold Big Tech accountable for invading the privacy of its users. He ignores the numerous ways in which social media has become inexorably tied to our waking lives through their colonization of both school and the workplace. It never occurs to Sinek that our addiction to digital technology may have been caused by the business philosophy to be always “on” and that, for some, this philosophy is learned first at school. Perhaps Sinek, like other Valley and ex-Valley corporate leaders, might encourage young people to take an extended digital detox, willfully unplugging from most (if not all) digital communications technologies. Proponents of digital detox believe that a break from the distractions of social media could potentially increase productivity, a goal Sinek would presumably endorse.
But quitting social media to strengthen work prowess is not a sufficient reason to resist the stranglehold Big Tech has on our lives, for social media is itself the net result of a culture that measures personal worth via the ability to produce. And what makes a student more productive than a classroom app that measures performance under surveillance?
Sinek fails to understand that social media is work and that, without certain communications technologies, the corporate sector he represents would tank. Because work, education, politics, religion, and social life rely on social media and digital devices, the wistful, nostalgic fantasy of digital detox becomes exactly that. And as long as Sinek — abetted by education apps like ClassDojo — train young people for the corporate game, the nostalgia industry will continue to commodify and sell the fantasy of a life lived without digital technologies.
Grafton Tanner is the author of Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. His writing has appeared in The Hong Kong Review of Books, Merion West, and We Are the Mutants. He is working on a book about Big Tech and neoliberalism.