A few weeks ago I attended a conference on the effects of the digital age, especially electronic messages, on our psychology and quality of life. It was quite a learning experience: One psychotherapist indicated that some young people had developed rickets because of their technological habits. They stay up all night playing computer games, sleep through the day, and don’t get enough sunlight.
This sounds like yet another warning against the damage due to extensive use of digital technology – or a hint of a new Middle Ages. Still, I wondered: Why write about it? Computers are pervasive and people won’t stop using them.
Before the event, I had re-read the The Shallows – What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr, an account about how all our tools, and especially digital technology, affect our minds. From clocks to computers, our brains, and the way we see and interact with reality, are being shaped by the technology that we invent. Before clocks, we measured time less acutely; back then, being late for an appointment would have meant something quite different. Before computers, many of us could read for long stretches; today, we self-interrupt every few minutes by checking Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter or just plain old email.
Technology is not just a tool, it’s a feedback loop that changes our very thinking. Indeed, Carr says, the very nature of computer use – intense, repetitive, and interactive – is exactly what is required to alter minds effectively, making us like “it”, the computer.
But does anyone really care? What if we wallow in the shallows of our minds, unable to concentrate or formulate any state of mind of any depth? Many argue this is just a new form of thought.
Returning home, at the airport, in the Madrid metro, at work, I noticed almost everyone bowing humbly to their smartphones, with a blank stare and a bend of the head, an insistent act of submission to a piece of plastic and metal. We may be simply communicating to friends or loved ones, getting a kick from the smallest message that just says “lol”.
But the nature of interaction with a screen and the cheap thrills that come with it, can also mean that we are becoming the willing slaves to our electronic messages. People are concerned about political tyrannies when a more insidious oppression is taking place at our very fingertips.
I exaggerate, you might say. You are almost certainly reading this on a computer, a tablet or a smartphone. I wrote it and distributed it through digital media and technology. The world is at my fingertips through the web and Wikipedia, and there is almost no doubt that we will continue to expand the use of information technology. It’s impossible to go backwards, and the Luddites will not triumph. But change comes at a cost. What are we lurching into?
Lost attention: When a new event occurs, we pay by giving it attention. We have so evolved because anything new may be important and affect our survival. The reflex makes sense when dealing with the occasional threat from nature, but today we are inundated by electronic distraction soaking up our attention nonstop. The reality is that we have only so much attention capacity, and if we use it on the web, we won’t be using it elsewhere.
Dissatisfaction: Extensive use of the internet and electronic media affects our social life. The packets of electronic excitement are more appealing than ordinary life, leading to dissatisfaction and a lessened engagement with all around us.
Learning is hampered: There are studies that show that using laptops in classes diminish the ability to absorb information for longer, leading to poorer academic results. Nevertheless, the wall of computer screens is still up in every classroom.
Triumph of Hal: In a recent article, Stephen Hawking warned about our growing fascination with artificial intelligence (AI), a natural consequence of our daily electronic habits. Hawking admits that AI can strengthen our ability to resolve global problems, but he questions whether AI can be controlled at all in the long run. Can we actually imagine a day when machines have better judgement than humans?
All around, the basics of life – judgement, social life, attention – are affected. Our minds are being shaped, made shallower and frenzied into a drug-like oblivion without a whimper of protest. As Carr says, our minds are fragmenting through the internet, “we don’t see the forest … we don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves”.
The conference I attended was held in the English countryside. In the early morning, I took a short walk with a friend in the lush green hills. I passed a very old oak with a stout trunk, a strange cypress reaching for the sky, and a deep quiet settled in, in a space and silence where nature often speaks. The calm reminded me of a night on the southern shores of Crete, the black sky populated with stars – just as my brain was filled electronic messages back home.
We can’t “work” with the English oak or the Cretan sky, we need the smartphone or the computer to relate to, to achieve our ends in this era. But we have forgotten that our minds are more like crucibles where understanding is forged, than boxes of input and output. The Internet tugs us towards the mechanical, denying the alchemical forge of real experience.
We can use both kinds of mind, and many do, but few are considering how altered we are by the extensive use of technology, and how much our attention is filled by the distractions of the digital world. Few notice the loss of intuitive knowledge – maybe the most powerful knowledge of all- and the slow ceding of judgement to machines.
Like Narcissus, who saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it, we peer into the screen, fall into an impoverished trance, while a richer world passes us by. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus died. Similarly, if we are unable to leave the screen, something very human in us will be dying, and a machine triumphs where human potential lies untapped.
Einstein feared the day that technology would surpass human interaction, because the world would then have a generation of idiots. Nevertheless, a revolt against this pervasive and invisible tyrant may come from an unexpected place: from the very youth that we believe are sunk by the ballasts on our minds. It may be their rebellion against the grand automation that may end up saving us.
So, while you’re still not 100 percent slave, take an antidote, read a book without interruption, or just do what this person suggests: There may be hope yet.
John Bell is the Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as a Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.