Is the Internet Killing Your Brain and Creativity?
In our industrialized societies of 24/7 connectivity and e-Everything, almost every aspect of daily life is mediated by some form of technology. The worlds of work, education, leisure, food, transport, health, media and many more are now not only extended and sometimes enhanced by technology, increasingly they are almost impossible without it. Aside from the potentially catastrophic consequences of this dependence, the proliferating technologies of communication, commerce, and entertainment present particular cause for concern. Drained by chronic overstimulation, gorged on info-tainment, and drowning in a tidal wave of trivia, billions of us are increasingly lost in a lurid fantasy land of surfing, gaming, smartphones, and various other digital distractions. Although critics of current trends aren’t difficult to find, their influence is no match for the global media machine that techno-evangelists such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates have at their disposal. Even calmly-reasoned suggestions that we give more consideration to the future we are making are noisily drowned out by the launch of glitzy new gadgets or the latest plans to colonize Mars.
One can of course argue that we are and have always been technological beings. From hammerstones to handaxes, hominids have used tools for millions of years so in that sense, haven’t we always been cyborgs? But there are two distinct points here: what it is in our nature to do, and how we actually do it. We are both creative and destructive, but even the better angels of our nature sometimes make bad decisions. We’re social animals too, so talking and listening and liking and sharing are just part of what we do. Yet the sheer scale, scope and speed of information exchange in the techno-industrial age is causing some serious side-effects, and they’re getting worse.
During the early days of mass media and communications, some worried about the increasing presence of propaganda, excessive consumerism, and vapid pop culture. The blue glow of television screens began to take over family gatherings now fallen silent. Then a TV in each room broke up such gatherings altogether. Soon, televisions in bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies, airport lounges, and train stations began to take centre stage, further sidestepping human interaction. Even hospitals and dentist waiting rooms weren’t immune. Such burning issues of the mid-to-late 20th Century, however, now appear almost quaint.
In some sense, though, we’ve always known that this day was coming. From Orwell’s ‘1984’ to Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ — in which propaganda and mass communications play such a central role — the spectre of a near-future dystopia has loomed large in the collective consciousness, although often just beneath the surface. It was there even earlier, in fact, when some of today’s machines and mechanisms of control could only be imagined. In Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie ‘Metropolis’, for example, and in E.M. Forster’s visionary 1909 short story ‘The Machine Stops’ which anticipated the Internet with uncanny accuracy.
The birth and growth of the Internet and modern communication technologies is transforming our daily lives, occasionally for the better. But the transformation of our minds and bodies — profoundly, rapidly, and with scant heed to the consequences — should make us stop and think. The general technological milieu of smartphones, tablets, PCs and other devices used in social media, gaming, and Web surfing produces many negative effects, from depression to loneliness, isolation to anxiety, and low self-esteem. Technology supposedly designed to bring us together can instead drive us apart, or to despair. And despite the vague sense of unease many of us feel about our relationship with our gadgets and gizmos, it seems we simply can’t live without them.
Many people suffer significant distress if forced to endure network outages, no signal, flat battery or similar malfunctions. Nomophobia — or phone separation anxiety — although not officially accepted as a pathology, is real enough, and it would seem that most compulsive smartphone users would rather visit the dentist than be without their little e-window on the world (although the dentist’s waiting room presumably has a TV). Phone store employees have reported customers with dead handsets displaying levels of grief normally reserved for funerals. Checking your phone during the night, during meals, while driving, while reading this article, or during sex (yes, this actually happens) may indicate that you have a problem. It can ruin your sleep, compromise your relationships, and cause all manner of mental and physical stress.
The fact that we are social animals inevitably means that, to some extent, we all need a certain amount of validation from our peers. In a world of ‘friends’ and ‘likes’, therefore, our online activity is often reactive, dictated by the responses of others. It’s social media as popularity contest. This can quickly become anti-social, not just when it eats up time once devoted to relationships and meaningful activities in the real world, but when it attacks those who aren’t sufficiently sold on the ‘obvious’ merits of increasing and unlimited time online. In this sense, social media and modern communications technology function like religion: too many people openly opting out can cause the faithful to question the fundamental basis of their beliefs. For the techno-utopians, this clearly will not do.
The content of all this online activity — memes, memories, and media of all kinds — also exerts enormous pressure on both the poster and the reader: those whose existence the thoughts, pictures, songs, videos and ‘life events’ supposedly represent, and those for whom these scrapbook entries either make them feel better about their own lives or appear as an idealized vision of a life of which they can only dream. This has a number of side-effects. Individuals with otherwise perfectly satisfactory lives can suffer undeserved feelings of inadequacy by comparing their own jobs, relationships or material possessions to those of others. ‘Keeping up with the Jones’ may be nothing new but the Net lets us into the lives of others to an extent that suburbia never could. Filtered, air-brushed, Photo-Shopped versions of reality also foster unrealistic expectations that the real world can never really hope to match. This can spawn a sense of entitlement similar to the reward-without-effort, gain-without-pain picture painted by TV ‘talent’ shows such as ‘The X Factor’ — the idea that little Johnny or little Jenny are just as talented as anyone else and that this conspicuous talent must be publicly recognised and rewarded. Another outcome is the tremendous tide of narcissism currently sweeping tech-societies. Obviously Facebook is your face and Myspace (remember that?) is your space, but the Net broadcasts and boosts our egos instantly and everywhere, sometimes causing us to believe our own hype. This unprecedented power also has a nasty habit of emphasizing and exaggerating negativity, making things seem worse than they actually are as they are copied and shared everywhere. News that would once have taken days or even weeks to wend its way around the world now goes global in seconds. Whether it’s actually true or not isn’t the main issue. And as transitory and ephemeral as stories, selfies, and all other Web froth seems, it will be preserved online forever, in theory at least. Our dreams of immortality may finally come true as profiles that cannot be deleted.
In large part due to the isolation and lack of face-to-face contact that excessive tech use causes, the early 21st Century is witnessing the widespread erosion of social skills. Many young people simply do not develop the ability to communicate without a digital mediator. This can leave them floundering in the endlessly-complex world of real people and real situations. Although partly due to economic factors and the wider cultural milieu, the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori offer an ominous glimpse of the future for the rest of the industrialized world. Living with their parents well into their thirties (with no end in sight) hikikomori are reclusive misfits — mostly male — who endure lives of extreme isolation cut off from the rest of society. It’s a pattern beginning to repeat in the West where asociality and avolition are on the rise, and not just among young males. A subset of these groups is those whose feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness breed with a festering sense of entitlement and unrecognised genius to produce nihilism and even misanthropy. Left unchecked, this can result in depths of despair that have ended in desperate acts such as suicide and school shootings.
The generalised disinhibition seen online has other unfortunate downsides. As most of us know to our cost, the Web is full of tough guys who know it all and have all the answers. That pretty much anyone is now free (subject to a certain amount of self-censorship or account suspension) to express their opinions online is largely positive, but the fact that so much discourse is now virtual has eroded and in some cases erased the emotional and physical boundaries which govern and guide human interactions, and all but dispensed with the idea that actions have consequences. Keyboard warriors hiding behind false identities are unlikely to get a punch in the face from someone they offend. Combined with anonymity, this apparent immunity and invulnerability fuels stalking and cyber-bullying which have on many occasions had dire real world consequences in the form of murder and suicide. The rise of so-called ‘hate speech’ has happened for similar reasons, and this phenomenon highlights another side of the story. As so-called ‘snowflakes’ and ‘safe spaces’ proliferate, so too will rapid-fire, knee-jerk offending and being offended. Extreme over-sensitivity increasingly stifles online debate and discourse. Uploaded to the Web, political correctness has indeed gone mad, and online trends have a habit of spreading offline too. From celebrity sex scandals to trans-gender toilets, we will seemingly focus on just about any nonsense or nonentity rather than face much more pressing social, economic and environmental problems.
It’s worth noting at this point that the clichéd dichotomy of digital natives (younger generations born into technology) versus digital immigrants (older people adopting technology) is often misleading. Much of the growth in social media use, for example, is among older people with younger people now showing less enthusiasm for many of the most popular platforms.
One area where our tech-addicted culture does however detrimentally affect young people in particular is education. There are a host of factors in play, from over-reliance on technology in the classroom to the symptoms of tech-addiction which make learning itself difficult. Depending on the Internet for information recall has meant little or no need to actually memorise anything. This has contributed to both declining reading rates and declining literacy, further aggravated by a growing inability to write — not just spelling, grammar, and punctuation now transposed into text speak — but actual physical writing on paper. Numerous studies have shown that absorbing information on paper as opposed to screens leads to more immersion and better retention. We also see shrinking vocabulary among certain groups of young people and the resulting inability to express themselves generates enormous frustration. This in turn affects their ability to function in the real world where poor communication skills are a definite disadvantage. The overstimulation caused by tech-overload also leads to fragmented information intake and fragmented thinking. Instead of reading an entire book or listening to an entire broadcast, we get cut-and-paste snippets and sound-bites, often out of context. Although touted as necessary and even desirable in today’s fast-paced world, our tendency to multi-task is atomizing our minds. This comes with an increasing inability to concentrate or remain focussed for even modest periods of time. Shortened attention spans result in shallower thinking and understanding. In some cases, we may even be losing the very capacity to think. Thinking in any meaningful way about anything much is fast becoming unfashionable.
In response, the education system in many tech-societies has been dumbed down, with the lowest-common-denominator mentality of mainstream media now applied to schooling. That pass rates and IQ scores (a far from flawless measure of intelligence) are reportedly hitting all-time highs simply suggests a degree of manipulation to maintain the illusion of ever-upward progress. The downside of the tendency to force every activity online and use technology because we can rather than because we should can be seen everywhere, education being merely one of the most conspicuous examples. The disadvantages of distance learning and overemphasis on interactivity play into the psychological problems already mentioned, further exacerbated by the plagiarism that the Web encourages, and increasing difficulty discerning fact from fiction. Possibly the most insidious trend is that of infants with iPads — the disastrous belief that children growing up in this technological age should get the earliest possible start in engaging with gadgetry. This gives kids a dubious ‘advantage’ in a life lived through technology, but the concomitant lack of parental physical contact can have devastating consequences. Connections made or not made at this stage establish the neurology for all future communication and emotional systems of the child.
The physical fallout of our tech-addiction is no less disturbing. In many ways it’s a continuation of trends set in motion during the early days of television — sedentary lifestyles marked by overconsumption and lack of physical exercise. The resulting obesity combined with poor muscle and cardiovascular development leads to a declining ability to do physical work, and the less-recognised but equally-worrying decline of traditional manual skills and crafts. Degenerative problems normally associated with older people are increasingly showing up in the younger population. Macular degeneration, RSI and nerve compression problems, and the deleterious effects of bathing in blue light day and night are now common. To say nothing of the carcinogenic hazards of the electromagnetic radiation now present almost everywhere.
The natural rhythms of our bodies, closely linked to those of our minds, can also be deeply disturbed by the toxins of tech-addiction, not least the aforementioned blue light. Sleep disruption and insomnia can result when our circadian rhythm is disturbed. The circadian rhythm is an internal time clock or pattern that influences processes in the body and mind in 24-hour cycles. Few of us rise with the sun and sleep when it sets as our ancient ancestors did, but excess exposure to artificial light late at night from screens of all types throws our body clocks out of whack, placing us at risk from debilitating disease.
The psychological and physical side-effects noted thus far can also combine with the ubiquity and abuse of pornography that the Internet promotes. Pornography, too, is nothing new but technology has made it available anywhere and everywhere (much of it became free as of 2008) just as it has become more explicit and extreme. What used to be called soft-core porn is now seen on billboard ads. Therapists are seeing all manner of sexual dysfunction right across populations, but it is in the very young where it is most pronounced. Many young heterosexual men in tech-societies are losing or simply never developing interest in pursuing the opposite sex. Both sexes are affected, but the decline of ‘traditional’ masculinity in young men is particularly pronounced. Waning interest in committed relationships and the responsibility that goes with them mirrors a general unwillingness to take responsibility for life in general. Just as so-called herbivore men in Japan are indifferent and apathetic about sex, marriage, and family, growing numbers of young males elsewhere are embarking on lives of disengagement and disinterest that may profoundly reshape our collective future. From the sexualization of ever younger children, to growing gender confusion, and the boom in ‘sexnology’ — smartphones as sex toys — the tech-matrix is mapping out some malefic new possibilities for our species.
One extremely immediate physical hazard resulting from our love-affair with iDevices and e-gadgets is that of accidents, sometimes fatal, as people mesmerized by their mobiles and oblivious to the world around them stumble blindly into harm’s way, usually traffic. Such dazed carelessness is only compounded by the tendency to wear headphones, further cutting us off from the five-sense external environment. Distracted walking finds its evil twin in distracted driving, and an alarming proportion of convictions for death by dangerous driving involve some form of attention-sapping activity such as texting or adjusting a Sat Nav. Stories of people falling to their deaths from balconies or cliffs whilst texting or trying to take a selfie are also all-too-common.
Perhaps the most profound physical impact that the use and abuse of communications technology can have on our bodies is on our brains. Much has been written about mobile phones and brain tumours, but emerging discoveries in neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change throughout a person’s life — give most cause for concern. ‘Neurons that fire together wire together’, so they say, thus bonds and connections in the brain strengthen and weaken with use. What and how we think, what we focus on, what we choose to ignore, how often and how intensely, all cause physical brain changes which are often measurable within just a few days. Degeneration and dysfunction of cognitive skills, therefore, become compounded over time. That the same applies to expansion and improvement means that we are free to raise our own consciousness should we so choose, but only if we know that we have that choice. Where humanity goes from here remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, the rewiring of our brains currently underway is already shaping our evolution.
This poses some fascinating yet troubling questions: What happens if the majority become subsumed into this mindless tech-matrix? If global decision making becomes ever more based on instant-gratification and short-term thinking? If this ineffectual, immature, and anti-intellectual posture becomes that of world leaders? Should those in control become little more than tyrants and thugs or egomaniacs wearing ignorance like a badge of honour, then we will finally have entered the dysgenic realms of Cyril M. Kornbluth’s ‘The Marching Morons’ or Mike Judge’s ‘Idiocracy’.
There is one further question, however, which is rarely asked when discussing these matters. What happens if, as E.M. Forster wondered, the machine stops? What happens if the infrastructure supporting our global techno-industrial society simply goes away? It needn’t be the result of a doomsday scenario such as an asteroid strike or geomagnetic storm. Its cause could be much more mundane and — as the likes of John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler and Dmitry Orlov have been suggesting for years — it may already be underway. The techno-utopian view of the future assumes virtually unlimited capacity for the manufacture and consumption of technology, endless advances and improvements in said technology, and — crucially — unlimited energy to power it all. This is simply not going to happen. The question then becomes: how will we deal with the dawning realisation that the very foundations upon which our world is built are slowly falling apart? Watching people blow a fuse over poor network coverage may provide some clues.
Technology isn’t going away, but our dreams of merging with machines, transhumanist immortality, and sailing off to the stars are being revealed as what they really are — dreams. So we are faced with a choice: integration versus interference. Endless unwanted updates to already overloaded operating systems, lacklustre product launches (iPhone X anyone?), moves from smartphones back to ‘dumb’ phones, and ‘delete Facebook’ are just a few warning signs of a system gradually unravelling. Can we then recognise our techno-industrial civilization for what it is — just another phase in our development, another chapter in the human story and in doing so, be prepared to turn the page? Or do we continue to blindly believe that in piling layer-upon-layer of complexity we can push ever-upward on the curve of consumption, convenience, and connectivity, ignoring hard limits and the lessons of history while thinking ‘this time it’s different’?
Originally published in New Dawn magazine, May / June 2018.