The Future Of Technology, The Internet And The Human Condition
(This article first appeared at urbantimes.com on 22 Aug 2013)
We live in an unparalleled technological age—it seems our smartphones are out of date within weeks, websites are measured in ‘hits’ and the population decides what is hot and what is not through ‘likes’, ‘tags’, ‘links’ and ‘pins’. A trip to an Apple store is like stepping onto George Lucas’s Death Star, complete with its own uniform, language and hierarchy. Via the Internet we can search for information on any topic at any time. The effects of such an intense environment of instant connectivity and immediate information are slowly emerging.
Words like ‘addicted’, ‘obsessed’ and ‘dependant’ have increasingly been used in recognition of our relationship with our gadgets…addicted as in: ‘dependent on as a habit; unable to do without’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary). The epidemic of the overuse of personal computers and the Internet and their adverse causative effects are finding a growing voice amongst psychologists, IT professionals, educators, parents and peers. As the centrepiece of modern, daily, practical life for generations X, Y and Z, the mental and social side effects are becoming difficult to ignore.
The founding editor of Wired Magazine Kevin Kelly wrote, ‘Screen culture is a world of constant flux, of endless sound bites, quick cuts and half-baked ideas. It is a flow of gossip tidbits, news headlines and floating first impressions. Notions don’t stand alone but are massively interlinked to everything else; truth is not delivered by authors and authorities but is assembled by the audience.’ It is this hyperactive, quick and sudden world that is causing concern for the range of effects it must be having on the human psyche, particularly the young. How do we expect children today to be able to concentrate on anything for any length of time when their whole formative existence is surrounded with super charged electronica? The ‘net delivers this shallow, scattered mindset with a vengeance’, (The Economist, 2010). Websites like Twitter, Facebook, Google +, My Space etc further fan the flames by ramping up the emphasis of staying ‘plugged-in’ for fear of ‘missing-out’. This feeling of somehow being ‘left-out’ or ‘left-behind’ is a silent hook and adds to the seductive nature of the Internet, keeping us coming back for more. Staying connected is everything—particularly for teenagers and early twenty-something’s—to be offline is to live with the fear that you may miss something, ‘This life of continuous connection has come to seem normal, but that’s not the same as saying that it’s healthy or sustainable, as technology–to paraphrase the old line about alcohol–becomes the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.’ (Newsweek, 2012).
But is it all bad? The Internet, for sheer functionality and convenience, is amazing. There is no other source on earth that can carry and distribute such an extensive range of information sources and services. It underpins our financial systems, health systems, and education systems. It can bring us up to date on anything instantly. It has also provided obvious benefits to the natural environment via the streamlining of countless services and untold other efficiencies. It’s the entrance to an instant audience of billions of people.
Yet there is an uneasy and sobering reality to this situation that hangs like a bad smell around our modern technological lives. It relates to the un-faceable fact that with all these instant resources, with all this knowledge, with all this technological potential—humanity is still painfully unhappy. The developed world has never experienced such material prosperity, such personal freedoms and such access to information since the dawn of consciousness. We are currently living the lives that our forefathers would only dream about in terms of material luxury and technological development. Yet a quick search on any daily news website will reveal an alarming plethora of examples of injustice, inequality, prejudice, oppression, and abuse. As the planet shrinks under the increase of connectivity, there is a growing sense that somehow we humans have become the victims of our own genius. That our technology is shaping us and not the other way around. Despite all our denials and distractions there remains the large, confronting problem of the fact that the technological age has brought no discernable advance in human’s quality of life or mental state. In fact, quite the opposite has been occurring. Dictionary.com describes alienation as: ‘the state of being withdrawn or isolated from the objective world, as through indifference or disaffection’. From a psychological viewpoint our technological age and the overuse of the Internet has only served to increase this phenomenon, particularly in young people. This has a major negative impact on human society as with the increase of human alienation comes the increase of psychological anxiety (as we become psychologically split-off from our real, natural selves and our world) leading to the increase of cynicism and overall societal dysfunction. Some influential voices take aim squarely at the internet for this occurrence. 2011 Pulitzer Prize Finalist, Nick Carr wrote in 2008 ‘In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.….’.
Similarly, a recent study of online research habits by the University College London reported that ‘…there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.’ And while it’s important for everyone to have access to information here and now—the future hazards of such extreme convenience are only beginning to be seriously discussed. ‘We could create the most wonderful world for our kids but that’s not going to happen if we’re in denial and people sleepwalk into these technologies and end up glassy-eyed zombies.’ (Greenfield, The New Atlantis, page 115)
However, as to be expected, there is a power of voices offering the counterpoint. Among them is Harvard experimental psychologist Steve Pinker, (author of the New York Times bestseller The Stuff of Thought). Pinker proposes that ‘The effects of consuming electronic media are likely to be far more limited than the panic implies.’ and ‘Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life’. Neil Levy of The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health agrees: ‘we don’t know whether heavy multitasking is caused by digital technology or just finds a ready outlet in it (today’s teenagers tweet while also browsing Facebook; perhaps their grandparents had the radio on while they read their comic books)’.
Bouncing back and forth on the debate spectrum is confusing—there are those who state the internet is mind-dumbing, that it lowers empathy and increases mental disorders (from general anxiety to anti-social tendencies to depression) and then there are the counterparties who demand more empirical evidence, denounce such alarmist opinion and who refer to historical incidents (the invention of writing for example) where similar concerns were raised to no obvious negative result.
But whatever your persuasion on this issue, a macro, holistic explanation provides the most perspective and understanding on the current state of play. It’s from this vantage that Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith, and his synopsis on the human condition, presents an intriguing angle. Griffith provides a backdrop and overarching explanation for which both the ‘Carr’s’ and the ‘Pinker’s’ are striving to reach. While the current debate appears limited by Maslow’s ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail’, Griffith offers a refreshing, uninhibited outlook. Griffith states that the fundamental and underlying reason for why humans want to be distracted in the first place is because we are unable to face or resolve our individual (and collective) human psychoses. Faced with the uncomfortable situation of being unable to fundamentally explain that we are worthwhile beings with meaningful lives, we undertake any number of daily distractions to ‘keep the wolves (of anxiety/depression) at bay’—the internet providing the perfect tool. Follow this through and it becomes painfully clear why the Internet is so addictive. It is the ultimate tool of distraction, a place where people can lose themselves for hours on end. Where superficiality and evasion of life’s daily issues become a seductive replacement for imagination and natural social integration. The Internet is the decisive drug for our ‘relief-addicted’ state.
So the point is not whether the Internet provides us an overall positive or negative experience. The point is, as Griffith emphasises, that human psychological alienation is the real threat facing humanity and the Internet is presently only serving to accelerate this threat. ‘The internet is the ultimate communication technology, but it is currently being used to spread and increase alienation, not knowledge.’ (Freedom: Expanded Book 1, Part 7:5). The reasoning in Griffith’s explanation is that with the right content the internet will fulfil it’s crucial purpose of spreading truthful and honest content (about our human condition from which we can start to understand ourselves) and begin to arrest the runaway alienation and global mental disorders that threaten to overrun us.
Technology and the Internet will certainly play their part in addressing the problems of the future. Problems of which, again, we humans find ourselves as both the cause and solution. So whatever your stance, let’s hope the real debate about the human condition comes to the fore…. and soon. As journalist Richard Neville wrote ‘The world is hurtling to catastrophe: from nuclear horrors, a wrecked ecosystem, 20 million dead each year from malnutrition, 600 million chronically hungry…All these crises are man made, their causes are psychological. The cures must come from this same source; which means the planet needs psychological maturity…fast. We are locked in a race between self destruction and self discovery’ (Good Weekend mag. Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Oct. 1986).
Pinker, S 2010, ‘Mind Over Mass Media’ New York Times—Opinion, June 10
Carr, N 2008 ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the internet is doing to our brains’ The Atlantic Magazine, July/August
Wikipedia 2009 ‘Psychological effects of Internet use’ [online] citation taken from British Library—Press & Policy Centre—Experience Alice’s Adventures on iPad, 20/09/2011
Griffith, J 2009 ‘Freedom: Expanded Book 1: The Biological Explanation of the Human Condition’ WTM Publishing and Communications Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia
Available from: www.humancondition.com/freedom/
Dokoupil, T 2012 ‘Is the Web Driving Us Mad’ Newsweek Magazine, July 9
Neville, R 1986 ‘Good Weekend Magazine’ Sydney Morning Herald, 14 October, Sydney Australia
Maslow, A 2009 Available from: http://quotation-inspiration.blogspot.com.au/2009/04/right-tool-for-job.html
The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, Reprinted 2007, South Melbourne, Australia
Levy, N 2012 ‘Your brain on the internet: a response to Susan Greenfield’ [online] The Conversation, 8 August
Greenfield, S 2006 ‘Stumbling into a Powerful Technology,’ The New Atlantis, Number 13, Summer 2006, pp. 115-118
The Economist 2010 ‘The effects of the Internet: Fast Forward’, 24th June Available from: www.economist.com/node/16423330