Tech'ed Up

Quick Tech Takes • U.S. v. Apple & "The Rewiring of Childhood"

March 28, 2024 Niki Christoff
Tech'ed Up
Quick Tech Takes • U.S. v. Apple & "The Rewiring of Childhood"
Show Notes Transcript

Founder and CEO of the Chamber of Progress, Adam Kovacevich, joins Niki for a rapid-fire take on the latest tech headlines. They dive into the latest Big Tech anti-trust litigation and have a candid talk about childhood in the smartphone era. 

“Apple hasn't done anything in the U.S. differently than in Europe. So it's peculiarly American that we've ended up in this situation.” - Adam Kovacevich

Niki: I'm Niki Christoff and welcome to Teched Up. We're still experimenting with a new weekly format, so this is an episode where a guest host and I break down what's behind the latest tech news.

Today I'm joined again by Adam Kovacevich, the CEO of the Chamber of Progress, and I couldn't have scripted a better guest for the news dominating headlines this week. Antitrust and kids online safety.

Adam. Thank you for coming into the studio again, second time this month. 

Adam: Great to be back. 

Niki: So, today we want to talk about two things: we're talking about a new book written by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He has a theory that we should be banning kids from phones until high school and then we're going to talk DOJ v. Apple. 

Adam: Great. 

Niki: Where we may not agree for once. 

Adam: Great. 

Niki: Which I think will be good! Yeah. Okay, so let's start with the book. It's about essentially the idea that smartphones and specifically social media, is really, really harming kids, that there's a causation between social media and kids having more anxiety, more depression, more mental health issues. Thoughts? 

Adam: Yeah. So first of all, I do think that there's a legitimate criticism of Jonathan Haidt's work about establishing the causation.

And there's been other studies on this question of social media and mental health. And so, just to kind of bracket that, we're not, we're not social science researchers here [laughing] so we're not going to get into [Niki: we are not!] a back and forth about this, but let's just, let's just say that some of this is in dispute. 

Niki: Yeah, the methodology.

Adam: [agreeing] Methodology. 

Now having said that, I think that what he's talking about is tapping into something real that a lot of parents, particularly of teenagers and preteens, are feeling, which is that childhood's changed. Um, phones play a big role, social media plays a big role, there's a, clearly a lot of feeling of powerlessness on the part of a lot of parents, and it's just interesting to me to see the way that's manifesting itself, because some of that is being turned into “We gotta legislate! We gotta do legislation on this topic.” Our organization works on state legislation, and this is probably one of the biggest categories of state legislation just by volume, there's so many bills dealing with kids online, and there's a variety of different ways that particularly red states and blue states kind of tackle it. 

But what I kind of am interested in with Jonathan Haidt's book is that he is not necessarily calling for political solutions. He's calling for more norms. 

Niki: Right. 

Adam: And so. His norms are, y'know, kids shouldn't have a phone until they're in high school.

They shouldn't be on social media until they're 16. Um, that there shouldn't be phones in schools. That, y'know, should be locked up. Um, and that kids should be playing outside more and doing more activities. 

I mean, I think about our childhood. I don't know about you, but - television. I watched so much television, basically unlimited television as a kid, right? And at some point along the way, that became kind of like, bad, right? 

Niki: Right, right. At some point, we started thinking of screen time as too much TV and there were, there was actually a lot of hysteria around how much TV we were all consuming.

I, I had a really, y'know this, irregular childhood. 

Adam: Sure. 

Niki: [laughs] So I, my parents locked us out of the house starting at 7:30 a.m. in the summer and were like, “Come back when the street lights are on.”

Adam: So, I'm kind of jealous of that. I mean, I was kind of a TV [Niki: laughs]  No, I'm serious. I was a TV addict. I remember in second grade, me and my two best friends, we, for like an exercise, we charted how we spent our time outside of school. We had the most TV watched and the most books read. But we just never went outside. And so, so I'm sort of -

Niki: I don't know. You also had rickets [jokingly]

Adam: Yes. So, anyway, so I do think, at some point along the way, this idea that maybe kids shouldn't have unlimited screen time became a norm.

And, like, with our kids, y'know, on the weekends, basically we let them have an hour after lunch and an hour before dinner, [Niki: right?] There's some limit. And different families do this differently. 

Niki: And before we get into how old your kids are, [Adam: Yeah] One of the things he says, which I sort of agree with, he says we are overly protective of kids in the real world, [Adam: Yes] and not nearly protective enough of them online. 

Adam: Yes. 

Niki: And that he suggests sort of this, It's a retro idea of how, more like how I grew up or people our age grew up. 

I think he makes some good points, but I wanted to ask how old your kids are?

Adam: Well, they're 11, 8, and 5. So they're all in elementary school, middle school.

And my oldest is the one more agitating for this a little bit more. He's a boy, so he's interested. He's not as interested in social media. He's interested in video games and stuff like that. But I do think there's definitely a strong element of, like, “What's the norm?” right? 

So, y'know, about a third of his class have phones, right?

And a lot of people are on iMessage or SMS. And so, there's a group chat for the class. And he's on that through his, y'know, through his phone. through his computer, and I think that he feels like he's, y'know, in on the, kind of the group chat, right? Nothing of consequence happens on the group chat. [chucklling] 

I've seen the group chat [drolly] It's pretty, it's pretty dumb, but for 11 year olds, it's exciting. A norm like that only really works if everybody adheres to it. And same thing with video games, because, y'know, a lot of video gaming now is kids not going over to another kid's house, but actually playing from their own house, but, but talking to each other over Twitch or some other service, right? [Niki: Right]

Sometimes they call each other. 

Niki: Oh, no, no, that's absolutely true. They call each other on the telephone and then have it on speaker. 

Adam: Yes. Oh, that's what my son does too. 

Niki: Right. 

Adam: And, and I think particularly for boys, that's kind of a lot not to, y'know, I don't want to generalize too much, but that is a big way boys socialize. I think girls might be a little more interested in sort of the social media part of it. 

And so, even if you wanted to be the parent who's like, “I want my kid to be outside.” Where are all the other kids? 

Niki: Well, right! They're at home.

Adam: And so, that's why this is really hard because you're, y'know, you're, whatever you want to do is somewhat influenced by what other people, other parents are doing. 

Niki: Right, exactly. You can't be the only parent who says, “You can't be on a phone or on social media,” because it actually, it isolates the child. [Adam: Right] They then don't have, there is not a group of kids running around the neighborhood together anymore.

That's not a thing. 

Adam: And so it's interesting to me because I think some of this then, it like gets channeled into this push for legislation, right? Right. So, we've seen bills that say, y'know, Florida has this new bill, you can't be on under 16, I think is where they ended up.

Right now, y'know, social media services, technically, kids aren't allowed on by themselves until they're 13. A lot of parents are okay with their kids being on before 13, so they let their kids lie, they lie for their kids. That's pretty rampant. 

Niki: Well, the kids can also do math. 

Adam: And the kids [chuckling] can also do math.

Niki: I mean, it's not one of their great strengths right now. [Adam: Yeah] But they can, they can figure out how to have a birth date that's right. 

Adam: So I, I,  I just, it's interesting to me that people are, sort of, turning to the government because there's a collective action problem.  

Niki: Correct!

Adam: I had this older friend, he said his daughter, when she got to high school, got really upset that they - she would go to a party and everybody would be on their phone. She, the daughter actually had this idea of, “Hey guys! Let's have a no-phones party.” And it turned out they loved it and actually had more fun doing it. But it actually started with the kid.

It started with the teenager. It wasn't a law. It wasn't a parent mandate, y'know? And so, I do kind of wonder if that's kind of the better path because, and also a lot of the bills that are proposed in this area, y'know, they require age verification, that's very difficult, they've run into constitutional problems, there's, there's a lot of, like, hurdles to this, to legislating in this area when norms might be the better way of approaching it.

Niki: Yeah, I agree. I understand that telling parents, you should be stricter about bedtimes and screen time and, I know nothing about this. But I am, recently, I now have four teenage roommates, which is a long story and a subject for another podcast.

Adam: Whole separate podcast!

Niki: Whole separate podcast!! 13, 13, 15, 17 boys. All boys. And I think of myself almost like Jane Goodall: I'm curious about what they're doing. 

And the older boys are competing completely obsessed with Tik Tok. It's very addictive. It's hard for them to get off of it. And I think it's designed differently than other apps. It starts with the “For You” page. It sucks them in and they spend hours and hours on it. And then they're in bed later. They don't get as much sleep. It's very hard to take that away from them.

They're also on Snapchat constantly, which is gamified engagement. So, streaking, which is where you're, y'know, every single day messaging with another kid, you get this gamified streak. So they're snapping constantly all the time just to keep those streaks going. And then, the younger two are on mostly YouTube and they're mostly watching videos and they're doing gaming. 

I do think, and this is a point made in the book that we should address, it is slightly different for girls. So, girls, all the - having been a tween and teen girl myself, all of the pressures to look a certain way, be a certain way, present a certain way are amplified by a factor of a zillion when you have social media and so a very good friend of mine has two tween girls and they - we went to the Taylor Swift concert - and the number of photos they had to take to get the right photos made me really sad. 

Adam: I know. 

Niki: Just the moments of their life [sadly]... And so, I think it's undeniable, the correlation is, maybe it's not causation, but the correlation is so much stronger with girls in, in, y'know, UK, Australia, New Zealand, United States, it's very clear that they have more anxiety, more depression.

That's why we're seeing so much legislation. Parents feel like like they're at a loss. 

Adam: Yeah, agreed. I will say that some of the bills that, y'know, we're seeing, for example, in state legislatures this year. There's a bill in New York and a parallel bill in California that says a service can't use algorithms to personalize a feed, right?

And what's happened is, and I think some of this comes out of the Francis Haugen stuff, they've sort of demonized an algorithm and they said, “Okay, well, y'know, you can have a feed, but it can only be people that you've chosen to follow expressly.” And they're legislating this or proposing to legislate this.

So, the problem with this is, like, an algorithm could serve you stuff that's bad, but it could also serve you stuff that's good [Niki: totally!] and actually could serve you stuff that's even better than the sort of the chronological kind of raw feed, right? 

If you're interested in Greta Thunberg, right, and you could get, y'know, served and recommended climate change activism content, right? And so, y'know, so, so it just, it seems to me like some of this is, again, very well-intentioned, but taking on the wrong target. 

Niki: Right, I think that's right. And I laughed when you said demonizing the algorithm because I think that's happening across not just social media with kids, but across everything, right, the idea that the algorithm is controlling us.

And actually, there is serendipity. I'm very pro-tech in general. I think there's a lot of serendipity on the internet, a lot of serendipity on YouTube, and on Instagram, I end up because of whatever triangulation they're using with Wi-Fi. Anyone I'm near, I end up with a new interesting set of recommended videos, which I find fascinating and so you do learn more things but it's hard to control the content because it's just very, very difficult with that amount of data. It's not realistic. The government isn't going to fix this. 

It has to be - Cecilia Kang was on this podcast. She had written a book about Facebook, and she said she felt like social media was quickly becoming like cigarettes. That people were just gonna say, “We're done! This is not healthy, it's not good. I'm done, my kids are done.” And that we're sort of careening toward that. 

And I think there's probably some truth to that. You disagree? 

Adam: I disagree. Well, first of all, it's kind of funny for journalists to say “It’s cuz they live on Twitter.” We all do, right? I mean, come on. Right?

But also, look, imagine that you're, y'know, a kid, who feels somewhat excluded or left out, right? You feel like kind of an outcast. Y'know, maybe LGBT kids in a not very in a school where there are not many other fellow LGBTQ kids. Online communities can be a refuge for that kind of situation.

I just hesitate to sort of paint it all with, “It's all terrible,”  because I think for some people, it can be a little bit of a refuge from a bad, y'know, in-person community that they have, or an unsupportive family. That's not to say it's all good either, I just, I just hesitate to sort of exclude [Niki: Yeah] those kind of situations where it might be a refuge for people.

What I see again on with, with bills being introduced to state level, y'know, a legislator Institute introduces a bill and it's very broad and sweeping in its kind of mechanism.

And, y'know, we might sometimes come in and say, well, y’know, “Do y'know that it would actually have this unintended effect, negative effect that you probably don't want?” And a lot of times the reaction is, “Well, you, you clearly don't care about children!”

I think actually Jonathan Haidt in this book kind of does a lot of this, gets to a better place where it's more of a constructive conversation about, “Okay, well, what are, y'know, what are the pros and cons of various approaches here?”

Niki: We are largely aligned on this. Again, you're coming at it from both someone who's deep into the tech world and have, you have kids. And for me, it's just, sort of, I do think I'm a little nostalgic for the way we grew up. 

Adam: Oh, remember in college we would, y'know, leave messages on whiteboards in people's dorm rooms to, y'know, stay in, stay in touch with them.

Niki: Absolutely. Well, the other great - 

Adam: This is not a nostalgia podcast, however. 

Niki: I mean, it kind of is [laughing] because we're Gen X and, and most of the people who listen to this podcast are Gen X. But yes, it's not a nostalgia podcast. 

It's a future-facing podcast. Okay, which leads us to [chuckling] Actually, that was a segue that didn't make any sense, which leads us to hard segue, [laughing] the Department of Justice v.Apple. 

Apple is a partner of the Chamber of Progress, an organization you run. It'll be interesting to see if you and I agree on this one. We're usually in agreement. The United States is suing Apple for alleged monopolistic behaviors. 

Whadda ya think?

Adam: Well, this one is interesting because in 2019, the FTC and the Justice Department basically split up big tech and they said, “Justice Department, you get Apple and Google and FTC, you get Amazon and Facebook.”

And, I think it's sort of inevitable that when you've done an exercise like that, you're going to end up with lawsuits because it's, y'know, who, who spends all this investment looking at something and say, “Nah, I'm good” ?!

[both laugh]

Adam: Forget it.! 

Niki: Forget it! It’s a trillion-dollar company. Meh! 

Adam: Exactly. So, Apple was the last one left not to have a lawsuit.

And what's interesting about this one is there's, there have always been some app developers who complain about Apple's terms of the App Store and the commissions and things like that but those issues have largely been litigated through the private cases brought against Apple by Epic Games, which Apple mostly won.

The judge was sort of reluctant to micromanage kind of what Apple charges on commissions. And so, I think what the Justice Department ended up with is mostly a case that's really going after the vertically integrated nature of the iPhone with iOS. 

So, the heart of it is that they're saying that, basically, the integrated nature of the iPhone deprives opportunities for what they call super-apps, which are apps like WeChat in China,  American versions of that. Cloud gaming, they say that could emerge as a competitor. And then they specifically take on Apple Pay, Apple Wallet, iMessage, the whole green bubble, blue bubble situation. And the last issue is watches. They're arguing that Apple makes it too difficult for non-Apple watch watches to operate with the iPhone. 

Niki: Wait, I want to go back just quickly so people understand. So, super-apps are, kind of, this idea of someone might have an app and then they want to have apps within the app. Other apps within apps. It's controlling the app store content. 

Adam: That's right. The best example of this is WeChat in China, which is, y'know, an all-in-one social media email, calendar. We don't really have an equivalent of this.

Right now, y'know, we might use the Gmail app and the GoCalendar app and, and Meta and Instagram and all these other things separately. In China, these have been combined, at least in WeChat. Their argument is that that could emerge as a competitor and they argue that Apple, y'know, has rules that prevent that kind of thing from happening.

Apple says it doesn't, but it's interesting because we haven't seen this, anybody try to do this kind of thing. [Niki: Right] Now they, of course, they argue that people might have tried. What's interesting to me is that the people most likely to do a super-app would be Big Tech [Niki: Right] which would probably be criticized for doing a vertically integrated all-in-one app. That one's a strange element of the case. 

Niki: I do think that they've thrown everything into the pot that they could find potentially that where they're showing that Apple is forcing people to use Apple Watches, Apple Pay is exclusive to Apple, the App Store is completely constrained by Apple, and what they're saying is there's a worse consumer experience.

So, I like that they're focused on consumers, the Federal Trade Commission seems very focused on competitors, which makes absolutely no sense under U.S. law. Here, they're looking at consumer harm but I think that their point that “therefore there is a worse product for consumers,” belies what is obvious, which is Apple makes great products.

Adam: Yeah, I think we might disagree on the competitor versus consumer focus. I think their effort to go after Apple Pay, arguably the biggest beneficiary of that would be, probably big banks. 

Niki: Right. 

Adam: So, and watch, yeah, okay, maybe consumers would benefit from that, but the, the, one of the big challenges for this case is the existence of Android as a competing platform.

Niki: It's not a monopoly. [Adam: Yeah] At a minimum, it's a duopoly. 

Adam: Yeah. That's right. 

Niki: Sure. Nobody's using a Windows phone [sarcastically].

Adam: No. No, we're not talking about Windows [chuckling] Yeah, we're talking about Android. And, and, and the thing is, Apple has, from the very beginning, had a very integrated experience with iPhone, very curated, walled garden.

It's always been that way. There was never really a bait and switch. And we were at Google when Google launched Android, and I remember thinking, like , “What, what is this? What is this even going to be?” But it's pretty clear, the strategy all along was for it to be the mobile equivalent of, of, of Windows, right? To be the open, flexible , basically, be the alternative to the walled garden. And it's been remarkably successful. 

Interestingly, Android's more successful outside the U. S. than it is in the U.S. 

Niki: Right, and it's incredibly successful.

So, Apple only has about 20 percent of the global market share. They're saying they have 70 percent here. And then the DOJ did this thing where they're calling it , performance smartphones versus just any smartphone. 

Adam: And over all these antitrust cases, the market definition's very gerrymandered.

Niki: Well, right. I mean, because it kind of has to be. [Adam: Yeah] Because that's the whole, that's the whole game. [chuckling] 

Adam: That's the whole game. And then, y'know, so you'll expect in this case, as in the other cases, that the government and the, and the defendant will spend a lot of time arguing about whether the market definition is correct.

Niki: Right. So, okay, you are talking about competitors. I guess that's true. But one of the things they focus on is switching costs. You mentioned we were both at Google {Adam: yeah] when we acquired Android. I started at Google the year the iPhone was released. I had this hot pink Motorola Razr. Which I loved, and I actually wouldn't mind going back to.

I got something called a GPhone, which I put in my desk drawer and thought I'd never use, [laughing] which was the prototype of an Android. And then, I used Google Phones for eight years. I didn't get an iPhone until I left. And at some point, I thought, “I actually would kind of like a Pixel. It has a great camera. I like using all of my Google apps in one place.”

And then the switching cost for me, which is not addressed in this litigation, but if I were doing this, I would have included it, is the goddamn cables! My entire junk drawer is just a yucca mountain of USB, USB-C, and lightning, none of it's interoperable. They got rid of the headphone jack, which enrages me.

And so, it's just like a giant pile of white cords. And I'm thinking to myself, “If I get a Pixel, then I've got to undo this whole mess of wires and I just can't deal with it!”  

Adam: We know what's funny about this. We normally trash Europe, but Europe has now required the iPhone to have USB-C [Niki: Yes!] So, you actually like something Europe has done on tech regulation! 

Niki: I do! I think we should regulate the interoperability of cords. And y'know what? I think it's a popular issue. I would like to see it picked up.

Adam:  This is your platform. [teasingly] Cord interoperability?! 

Niki: I have, yes - cord interoperability. I think people agree with this.

Adam:  Okay, but set aside the cord thing. 

Niki: Right. 

Adam: How difficult was it to switch?

Niki: I didn't switch in here is the other reason I'm now, I am sort of trapped with the hardware because I now have my headphones. I have car play. y'know, I have, I am, I am somewhat trapped and I like my iPhone, right? 

That's the other thing. I like it. I would love the option to switch to a Pixel, but it's just not worth it.

And then let, we just, we have to talk about it and it sounds so dumb and people are mocking the DOJ brought it up, but it is a for real thing, which is the green bubble. 

Adam: I've always had a hard time getting into the green bubble, social trauma, [chuckling] but maybe, maybe you feel closer to it. It's never struck me as the basis for an antitrust complaint.

Niki: Well, it doesn't really make sense because it's not Apple hurting their own consumers and really the only harm to Android users is shame [Adam: yeah] for having the green bubble and there is a real- 

Adam: Well, Apple argues that it's that iMessages are encrypted and SMS is not. That's what they're signaling to an iPhone user but I, I get your point.

Niki: Literally no one knows that. [Adam: Yeah] No one who's getting a green bubble thinks, “Oh, it's a warning that this isn't an encrypted message.”

Adam: Right. 

Niki: No one thinks that.

Adam: It is an interesting choice by the Justice Department to include that issue. Yeah. Just given the way it's sort of then been meme-ified. 

Niki: Yeah, it's been totally meme-ified, but it is a real thing.

I think we've started this conversation talking about kids. It matters to kids. Kids do not want to be the person on the group message who's got the green bubble. 

Adam: It's interesting, too, because in Europe this is not an issue because everybody uses WhatsApp. 

Niki: Right. 

Adam: This is a uniquely American thing, and the interesting thing about this is, Apple hasn't done anything in the U.S. differently than in Europe. So, this is peculiarly, it's peculiarly American that we've ended up in this situation [Niki: Right] where people, again, outside the U. S., people responded to this by like, “Ahh, we'll just all go to WhatsApp.”  [Niki: Right]

This case isn't going to see a courtroom for probably three years. [Niki: Right] And so you do kind of wonder, are, will it, will some of these issues be moot by then? Will the DOJ amend the case to bring in new issues?

I mean, one of the interesting dynamics about these government cases against big tech is that the enforcers who bring them Lina Khan, Jonathan Cantor will probably be gone [Niki: Right] by the time the case is actually y'know, brought to a conclusion. 

So, that's just an interesting dynamic. So, they're sort of, they get the burst of headlines for launching the case, but then it's, it's, it's really probably implemented by somebody else. 

Niki: Well, and I think the, the crux of it is, people do have an option.

Sure, I may not want to deal with the switching costs, and I may not want to have to export a bunch of my data and my photos, so it's a headache for me, but it's not because I can't. And, in fact, if I did switch, I would save money. [Adam: Yeah]

There is another option, and the Pixel's a great phone.  [Adam: Yeah] It's a great phone.

Adam:  Yeah! I always sort of, like, think about it like, y'know, I love going to Disneyland. It's sort of a closed experience. And I also like going to Yosemite National Park. But I worry that the case is going to force Disneyland to look like Yosemite. Right? And actually we should allow both to operate. 

Niki: Well, and not to put too fine a point on it, I think of this, and maybe this is a terrible analogy, but, y'know, everybody- 

Adam: [interrupts quickly] Analogy war!! 

Niki: Okay, let's have an analogy war. [Adam: Yeah] You've got Yosemite and Disneyland. I'm gonna go with a Tesla versus a Nissan Leaf. Nobody ever thinks about the Nissan Leaf, but it's the very first electric car. Nobody's posting their Nissan Leaf to the ‘gram, because Tesla is conspicuous consumption. It's a luxury good. And so, and yeah, allegedly it has self-driving, although it's going kind of not that great for them right now. But it is essentially a luxury good. You're showing people you can afford a Tesla. It's cool. 

You're not seeing an antitrust case against Tesla over the market for vehicles because people have a lot of options. And they actually do have a lot of options with phones.

Adam: I think that's right. Yeah, I think that's right. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out because all these arguments will get aired. [Niki: Yeah] In briefs, in court for years. 

Niki: I think they probably, you're right. We'll have years to do it. Things will change over time and I suspect it's not a winning case. I think people are frustrated but I think overall they like  their phone and they do absolutely have options. 

Adam, thank you for being one of the co hosts of this, coming in twice this month. I really appreciate you taking the time. 

Adam: Sure, I think we've gone deep into courts, which has been awesome. 

Niki: Yeah, and it's been sort of perfect timing.

It's something you're really focused on in your day job and have been for many years, so the headlines sort of broke perfectly for this setup, and I'm really grateful you came in. 

Adam: It's always fun.