Food for Thought for Gen Z, Fast and Processed

Avi Loeb
5 min readMar 5, 2024

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Image credit: J.M. Dautel, Wikimedia Commons

In a WORLD.MINDS forum led by Rolf Dobelli, the social psychologist Jon Haidt from New York University explained why in 2013, the rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm began rising rapidly for American adolescents born after 1996. This so-called Generation Z has the worst mental health record of any generation documented over the past century. 2013 was the year after Facebook bought Instagram, and correlational studies indicate that girls who heavily used social media were three times more likely to be depressed than non-users, while for boys the increase is by a factor of two. Instead of experiencing physical interactions with the real world and developing face-to-face relationships with real people, some Gen Z adolescents become addicted to digital screens. According to Haidt’s new book “The Anxious Generation,” addictive engagement with digital screens can rewire the brain of an adolescent during the transition from puberty to adulthood, causing the apparent epidemic of mental illness.

During the subsequent Q&A discussion, I pointed out that social media are probably just the beginning, and asked Jon: “Would artificial intelligence (AI) amplify the problem?” What I meant is that ChatGPT replaces primary sources in defining the knowledge base of Gen Z students in my classes at Harvard University. Their food for thought is served fast and processed, analogous to McDonald’s junk-food but for the mind. The consumption of fast and processed food for thought instead of a substantive grappling with ideas expressed in the writings of human authors, represents an additional retreat from the real world into the virtual world of computer screens.

Jon admitted that he is very concerned about the impact of AI on the mental health of users. Already now, there are signs that deep fakes become viral and some people fall in love with virtual AI partners. If no countermeasures are taken, AI would further reduce the direct interpersonal interactions among people and replace them by human-AI relationships which could be as fulfilling as the enhanced sugar dosage in junk food. His concern about the future was alarming.

A century ago, AI was unknown to the philosopher Martin Buber who only described the human-object interaction as “I-it” or the human-human interaction as “I-Thou”. Buber never imagined interactions of the “I-AI” or “AI-AI” types. In Buber’s existential philosophy, the dialogue with God is an “I-Thou” experience, unique to the individual. My forecast is that once AI systems will become more capable than the human brain, their oracle-like function will offer a virtual God-like figure that some people would worship in a new form of religion.

A few hours after Jon’s forum, I entered a classroom to teach my first-year seminar at Harvard College. Having the above concerns on my mind, I asked the Gen Z students in my class whether they agree with Jon’s thesis? They did not. Some suggested a measurement bias and others argued that correlation is not causation. Of course, the weakness of their evaluation is that they did not experience a different reality during their adult life, whereas Jon and I did. But the future of Gen Z is far more startling, as I realized while lecturing to them about exponential growth in the context of black holes in the early Universe. This led me to mention another example of exponential growth, Moore’s Law, which is likely to shape their future.

Moore’s Law over the past half century (Credit: Physics World).

Moore’s Law describes an exponential growth in the number of transistors per chip, which doubled every couple of years over the past half century since Intel’s first 4004 chip in 1971. This growth drives electronics, communications and computers. Progress accelerates because the rate of increase in the number of new technologies is proportional to the number of technologies that already exist.

The 12th century theologian John of Salisbury referenced in his treatise Metalogicon (1159) the philosopher Bernard of Chartres as saying: “We are like dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

The compounding nature of growth in science and technology suggests that Gen Z will face unprecedented challenges in their future, on top of the mental illness epidemic they encountered during adolescence. The virtual world could take control of society and promote existential risks that were never experienced by previous generations.

I offered the students in my class an alternative to despair. They could enjoy the party while it lasted. If a cliff of technological risks is looming ahead, Gen Z could approach it like the ending scene in the film “Thelma & Louise”, guided by an undeterred free spirit of adventure.

If Moore’s Law applies to alien technological civilizations on exoplanets, the unavoidable cliff looming in the future of Gen Z might resolve Fermi’s paradox: “Where is everybody?”

The answer is encapsulated in the name we gave to my students’ generation, since Z is the last letter of our alphabet.

Where is everybody? Glued to their computer screens and surfing the internet. The Gen Z aliens do not really care about any of us in the real world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".