People under 18 (aka “children”) send and receive text messages every 10 minutes during waking hours, according to Nielsen. Our personal identities are being shaped by Twitter, says NYTimes Magazine. Creativity, intelligence and peace of mind hindered by excessive computer use, according to a series of articles titled, “Your Brain on Computers.”
A host of recent lay articles have discussed (1) our increasing use of all sorts of digital connectivity and (2) the negative effects on our psyches and systems (often reverting to language that signals addiction). For good reason, scientists and sociologists are joining forces to understand the impact of explosive connective technology, from smart phones to increased online access to e-readers. Overlay that with social networks and gaming, and you essentially have a nice heat map of American waking life.
For interesting and less biased data, see the Pew Charitable Trust’s project on the Internet & American Life.
Not surprising given the general undercurrent of American politics, the current debate surrounding digital revolves an apex of morality: is the internet good or bad for society? And we’re not comparing nickels and dimes here. Increased access to information versus loss of privacy; abundance of intellectual and leisure activities versus losing touch with nature and a physical reality; efficient marketplaces versus the decline of friendly neighbors.
As someone who is part Luddite and part digital geek, I’m inclined to believe we will eventually achieve a comfortable synergy, in which the digital enhances the physical world, helps us make more informed decisions and serve to augment, rather than replace “reality.” For example, check out technology that lets you scan a bar code to find comparative prices in the local area, and eventually reveal the carbon footprint of the product. Or a website that lets passionate do-gooders find out how to help in meaningful ways. Or even a simple app that enable conference attendees to discover potentially life-changing contacts, and perhaps give them an excuse to leave a boring conversation. Sure, intrusive media and technology will continue to exist, but as with every over-crowded market, users will continue to reject and expel the losers. I predict synergy rather than equilibrium because (1) I don’t think the latter is possible in human society and (2) the path toward productive coexistence will likely be far from comfortable (with many likely sitting in therapist chairs).
I did a quick search to see what psychology literature was available to help us assess the motivations for online usage, and abuse. Unfortunately, the articles were limited and often outdated, at least from Google Scholar. So for the purposes of this post, here are a few hypotheses on the sources of utility from online usage:
- Relief of boredom
- Social contact
- Information gathering
Interesting to note in this context is the aforelinked statistic that 1/3 of our time spend online is in social networks or games. We love to share (information, gossip, advice), discover (stalk, watch the lives of others unfold) and play (compete, achieve simple daily victories). So is it not possible to gossip, discuss politics, flirt or play a game in the physical world? Clearly it is, but our choice to do it online, en masse and often with complete strangers signals to me that we are simultaneously estranged and familiar, lonely and connected, passive and active.
Technology will only become increasingly pervasive, location-based, and personalized, and we will be increasingly overwhelmed by the positive and negative benefits thereof. But before diving into the “is technology bad” debate, I would urge medical professionals, policy makers and business people alike to start with why. Although a more tedious and complicated question, the answers will reveal far more compelling evidence that can help us determine how to effectively manage the what and how. In this case, the egg comes before the chicken.