Digital Slaves

The internet as a whole emerged in our lifetime, undersigned, unexpected, unpredicted. Nobody planned it. Nobody is in charge. Nobody foresaw blogs, social networks, even search engines, in advance let alone in particular forms they took. No one signed up for the loss of control. Yet for all its messiness the internet isn’t chaotic. It’s ordered, complex, and patterned. It’s a living example of the phenomenon of evolutionary emergence of complexity and order, spontaneously created in a decentralized fashion, of course, without a designer. It’s the sum, the multiple, actually of many individually deliberate projects. By providing an always-present connection to a humming matrix of chatter and distraction, smartphones have reshaped people’s experience of the world & transformed the way we live, work, learn, travel, shop, and stay connected. Not even the industrial revolution created such a swift and radical explosion in technological innovation and economic growth worldwide. Nearly all fundamental human pursuits have been touched if not revolutionized by mobile……. 3G and 4G technologies have reached billions of subscriptions, making mobile the most rapidly adopted consumer technology in history.

Smartphones have, nevertheless, enslaved people to their devices. People downloaded the apps and set up an account for good reasons only to discover with grim irony that these services were beginning to undermine the very values that made them appealing in the first instance. People joined Facebook to stay in touch with friends and then ended up, unable to maintain an uninterrupted conversation with the friend sitting across the table. The endless bombardment of news, gossip and images on the shiny baubles pull so instantly at our attention, cultivating behavioral addictions, leading people to feel as though they’re ceding more and more of their autonomy when it comes to deciding how they direct their attention. As Neo-Luddites advocate abandonment of the most of new technologies, the quantified self-enthusiasts carefully integrate digital devices of their life with the goal of optimizing their existence in the context of the current moment of digital-overload. Techno-apologists are quick to push back the discussion to a utility.

As they spend too much time in cyberspace, the youth of today are regarded as shallow, selfish, spoiled, feral-good-for-nothing, and full-of-narcissism. The ‘enterprise-culture’ means competition, overwork, anxiety, and falling ill (even though the children were more overworked and fell a lot more ill in the industrial, feudal, agrarian, and Neolithic and hunter-gatherer past). It’s not about usefulness; it’s about autonomy, the feeling of losing control. Where you can simultaneously cherish your ability to discover inspiring photos on Instagram you fret about this app’s ability to invade the evening hours you used to spend talking with friends or reading with no social notifications, no quick snapping of photos to Instagram, no reason to surreptitiously glance down a dozen times during dinner. Few predicted how much our relationship with this shiny new tool would mature in the years that followed.

The Quick Glance…….is the new technique that the Smartphone provided to banish the remaining slivers of solitude. At the slight hint of boredom, you surreptitiously glance at any number of apps/ mobile –adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds (the Smartphone usage in terms of time spent, looking at the screen, should be added with the time spent listening to music, audiobooks, and podcasts). The intricate brain networks evolved over millions of years in environments where interactions were always rich and face-to-face encounters and social groups were small and tribal. The past two decades are characterized by the rapid spread of apps, services, sites, etc. that enable people to interact through digital networks, which have pushed people’s social networks to be much larger and much less local while encouraging interactions through short text-based messages and approval-clicks that are the orders of magnitude less information-laden than what we’ve evolved to expect.

As people devote less time to offline communication, the small boosts we receive from posting on a friend’s wall or liking their latest Instagram photo can’t come close to compensating for the large loss experienced by no longer spending real-world time with the same friend. The idea that real-world interactions are more valuable than online interactions isn’t surprising. Our brains evolved during a period when the only communication was offline and face-to-face. These offline interactions are incredibly rich because they require our brains to process large amounts of information about subtle analog cues such as body language, facial expressions, and voice tone. The low-bandwidth chatter supported by many digital communication tools might be look-alike of this connection but it leaves most of our high-performance social processing networks underused—reducing these tools’ ability to satisfy our intense sociality. The value generated by Facebook comment or Instagram like—although real—is minor compared to the value generated by an analog conversation or share real-world activity.

Online interaction is, both, easier and faster than old-fashioned conversation. Humans are naturally biased toward activities that require less energy in the short term, even if it’s more harmful in the long run. We end up texting our sibling instead of calling them on the phone or liking a picture of a friend’s new baby instead of stopping by to visit. As the digital communication tools sabotage the offline communication our primal instincts to connect is so strong that it’s difficult to resist checking a device in the middle of a conversation with a friend. Our analog brain cannot easily distinguish between the importance of the person in the room with us and the person who just sent us a new text. Face-to-face the conversation is the most human and humanizing thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity to empathize. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.