Esther Dyson has witnessed the internet grow up from its earliest days. As the curator of the now-legendary conference PC Forum, she was there in 1985, hosting a gathering of people who have become tech luminaries, among them Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg. She has been described by Sir Martin Sorrell, the former CEO of WPP, as a “digital guru.”
For Dyson, the relationship between today’s young internet users and its platforms is more than theoretical. She and her friends created what has become the modern web.
On a hot summer night, she joined with a group of media makers, academics, and technologists at P&T Knitwear, a family-owned bookstore and event space founded by philanthropist and venture captialist Bradley Tusk, located on the Lower East Side. Dyson spent an engaging hour with Raziya Palmer, a 10th grader at Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts in Harlem. Palmer is a teen mental health activist and outspoken critic of how teens are treated by social media.
What follows is an edited transcript of some of the night’s highlights.
Esther Dyson: Your generation, your cohort, whatever you want to call it. How do they think about the news?
Raziya Palmer: Most of my friends get their news from social media, which I don’t think is a good thing.
Dyson then asked Palmer how she became involved in teen mental health.
Palmer: I struggled with my mental health when I was younger, especially during the COVID pandemic, and I turned to social media to help me with that. Sucks to say that that didn’t work. It actually kind of made it worse.
I ended up finding myself staying in my bed or staying in my room for like five hours, six hours at a time, just scrolling on TikTok, watching videos. I ended up just falling into a spiral of depression.
Dyson: How much do you feel you were being manipulated by somebody who wanted to sell you ads or make you feel inadequate so you’d buy more clothes or whatever?
Palmer: When it came to ads, like, “Oh, are you feeling down? Are you feeling depressed? Do you feel this way or that way?” — I feel like those really brought me in, and then they would be like, “Oh, yeah, you should do this. You should do that.” So I think they target the things that they see you struggle with and then they kind of reel you in from there.
Dyson also talked about the addictive nature of today’s social media, saying “I believe our biggest social problem as a country is addiction.”
And Palmer agreed: “I took like a really long break from social media. I deleted my Snapchat, deleted my TikTok.” And in talking about drugs, she said: “I think it’s probably a lot similar.”
And then, sitting in a 3,000-square-foot space with shelves lined with 10,000 books and a cafe, as well as a podcast studio and an 80-seat amphitheater Palmer pulled together an analogy into a summary that caught the audience by surprise: “So please don’t do drugs, do books.”
Do books, indeed. Hard to disagree with that.
The stream of the conversation will premiere on Aug. 31 at 10 a.m. on YouTube.