Left To Their Own Devices by Julie M. Albright

Left To Their Own Devices: How Digital Narratives Are Reshaping the American Dream   By Julie M. Albright, Prometheus Books, 2019

The biographical note attached to Julie Albright’s new book Left To Their Own Devices: How Digital Narratives Are Reshaping the American Dream claims she’s “a sociologist specializing in digital culture and communications” and elaborates that her research “has focused on the growing intersection of technology and social/behavioral systems.” Left To Their Own Devices itself is about the “digital divide” between older people and younger people, a divide that, according to Albright, “encapsulates an entire constellation of cultural capital and technological savvy that goes hand in hand with living immersed in a digital culture,” resulting in major differences in how older and younger people perceive the world itself. “This fracture is more than simply differing use of electronics; it, instead, signals the emergence of separate cultures, with very different behaviors, social rules, and value propositions.” The effect of this cultural split will be, she claims, tectonic.

Other books have made this kind of claim, most notably Jean Twenge’s iGen from 2017, but in fact the taxonomy extends much further back. The upcoming generation has always been tectonically, and by easy extension ominously, different from the generation presently writing books. Considering the stakes involved, it’s lucky for readers that trained professionals like Albright are the ones currently writing those books, since they’re best suited to explain the nature of this two-culture shift that’s allegedly taking place. A sociologist specializing in digital culture should be ideally positioned to make sense of it all.

The first footnoted claim in Left To Their Own Devices happens in the Introduction: “Four out of five young people can’t even read a paper map anymore; instead, they rely on Siri or Waze or Google Maps to get them to their destinations.” The source is a CNET article by Rory Reid titled “Most under-25s Can’t Read a Map Because They Rely on Sat-Navs-Roadshow.” Albright’s note claims the article was written in 2011, but the link she provides actually leads to a 2013 Rory Reid article that in turn cites an article on MyVoucherCodes, which is a UK travel discount website. That’s where the trail runs cold; in support of her belief in the urban myth that digital-native young people can no longer read maps, Albright cites a website that cites a travel discount business with no polling or research credibility.

The second footnoted claim in Left To Their Own Devices, also in the Introduction, is: “The highest frequency cellphone users touched, tapped or swiped their phones an unbelievable 5,427 times a day.” The source is a Chicago-based marketing research firm called Dscout, whose research team “People Nerds” conducted a study originally designed for 100 paid participants over the course of five days. Only 94 participants actually showed up, and only 60 or so completed the “study” for the whole five days. Of those roughly 60 people, roughly 6 touched their phones anywhere near that 5,427 total; most of the 60 people touched their phones half as much or less. And that’s where the trail runs cold: in support of her scare-mongering about young people compulsively touching their phones 5,000 times a day, Albright cites a marketing website that conducted an incomplete study of 60 people.

The third footnoted claim in Left To Their Own Devices, again still in the Introduction, is: “So as to never miss a text, tweet, Facebook update, Snapchat, Instagram, or - streaming video on Facebook or Periscope - now more than 70 percent of Millennials sleep their cellphones (as compared to only a third of Baby Boomers).” The source is Liveperson, an AI Software company that requires visitors to join their mailing list before looking at the “study” they say was conducted for them in 2017 by Survata, a market research company with clients ranging from Microsoft to Chipotle. And that’s where the trail runs cold: in support of her claim that 70 percent of Millennials sleep with their phones so they never miss an Instagram update, Albright cites a walled-off marketing scam by a branding company.

That’s the first three footnoted claims of the book’s Introduction. That’s not touching the rest of the book, and it’s not including all the claims in the Introduction that aren’t footnoted (including the Twitter meme about young people no longer being able to read analog clocks). Three footnoted claims in a row, not a scrap of actual science or valid research contained in even one of them, and the claims themselves nearly lost in a sea of undifferentiated Chicken Little alarms about a tectonic shift in culture.

Since it’s just as easy for a sociologist specializing in digital culture to debunk those three claims as it was for a non-specialist book reviewer to debunk them, there can only be two explanations for their presence here: either Albright is credulous to a degree that’s unusual even in specialists, or she went looking for websites, however spurious or obviously conflicted, that supported the conclusions she’d already reached before a word of the book was written.

Either way, who on Earth would trust this book? Young digital natives might spend a lot of time looking at their phones, but they deserve better than this hyperventilating wad of pseudoscience to explain why.  

--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for TheNational,The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.