Let me start this post with a caveat: I really like technology and the resultant gadgets. I love the way they enable my life, but I often wonder just how much of this is illusion. I have developed a lot of adaptations to care for my growing bevy of gadgets – charging them, updating them, maintaining them. And, disturbingly, they’ve changed me – I get anxious if my iPhone isn’t in my pocket, or when I can’t access the net to check the latest headlines…
I’ve also found myself, like many other people I imagine, getting more and more frustrated when things don’t go my way, instantly. My gadgets frustrate me when they don’t work the way they should. I find myself shouting at my computer when a website won’t load, and I’ve learnt to expect that I should be rewarded or gratified in an increasingly shorter timeframe.
All of this scares me. I think we’ve started down a road that ends at something a lot less human (by human I mean the good bits, like compassion and empathy).
So what’s going on? Well first let’s look at the outcome, that is, the way we’re changing to accommodate our machines. Human brains are nothing if not rapidly adaptable – it’s why we’ve done so “well” as a species. It used to be that all knowledge was stored internally – you knew what you knew, passed down by word of mouth – and what you knew was sufficient for your (albeit limited) environment. Then came reading and, eventually, the printing press (enabling the mass storage, distribution and transfer of knowledge). Suddenly, we were able to store knowledge easily, outside of ourselves, and to obtain knowledge through a third party device (a book). We no longer relied on our direct contacts for input – our world got bigger and smaller at the same time. In more recent times we’ve seen, first the personal computer, then the internet, and most recently, the portable ultradevice. My iPhone is massively more powerful than the desktop computer I had 10 years ago, keeps me in constant contact with the world, and provides any information I want instantly. For the first time, much of our knowledge is held outside of our heads – the accessible internet has become a sort of metacortex for information.
At the same time, our brains have adapted rapidly. Instead of remembering phone numbers (do you remember not so long back when you had at least 20 phone numbers in your head), we remember where the phone numbers are stored for us. I don’t even know my wife’s mobile number, but my iPhone does… It’s become a case of not so much what we know, but whether we know where it’s stored and how to access it. Future generations will do this in a way that blurs the line between human and machine.
But our brains have changed in other ways. Because gadgets provide us with the things we’re programmed to need (like connectedness to others), we get a neurochemical reward every time we use them. There’s a system in the brain called the mesolimbic dopaminergic system – a part of the midbrain that rewards certain behaviours in the form of a neurotransmitter called dopamine – the ultimate feel-good chemical. Dopamine is the reason that sex feels good, that chocolate is yummy and that cocaine provides a high (it’s not the sex, chocolate or cocaine providing the high – it’s dopamine, produced by our own brains, and the reason why all of these things can be very addictive). When the brain releases dopamine, it’s convinced that it’s doing it to assist in our survival (the system is primitive) and therefore it lays down strong memories associated with the preceding behaviour or chemical, so that we’re more likely to repeat it. Thus, because it’s learnt that gadgets are important, the brain releases dopamine when we use them. When we’re separated from our gadgets we suffer – the anxiety we feel is largely because we’re removed from something the brain believes is necessary for survival and it wants it back – now…
How did we get here? I think back to my days as an undergrad (now over 20 years ago)… The height of my technology was an answering machine. Did I function differently? Was my life less fulfilling? Did I struggle with a lack of information or connectedness? OK, so my recollections are tainted by default, human memory is pretty fallible, but the answer, I believe, is no. I was fine despite my lack of gadgets. In fact, it’s likely that I put a lot more effort into my communications with others and in my information seeking – because it was harder and required more of my attention. It therefore had greater perceived value (hint: perception of value is going to explain a lot from here on).
Let’s go back another 80 years. Mass production was still a relatively new concept, and technology was not in the hands of the masses. The things we used everyday were often handmade or produced with a large amount of human input and were not, therefore, all exactly the same. Because we had to put more effort into their acquisition (especially if they were luxury goods, which were not readily available) as well as their use, these items also engendered greater perceived value. Equally, our relationships were concentrated to a smaller radius. We put effort into developing and maintaining our communities and, because of this, had a sense of pride about our immediate and extended relationships, including a powerful sense of national pride (let’s not get confused here, I’m talking about a sense of identity developed through shared effort, not the illusion of community that comes from chanting football slogans with a bunch of inebriated “colleagues”). We are an evolved species and we’ve evolved some very hardwired requirements for interpersonal connection – also rewarded neurochemically (in a lot more complex ways than chocolate is).
The modern analogy is often a loose connection of associates that do not and cannot provide the deep bonds that we’re programmed to need. Repeat after me: “my Facebook friends are not my real friends…”
Let’s not get too nostalgic – nostalgia by its definition is an ambiguous emotion – it evokes pleasure for a time we perceive to have been simpler and more pleasant, mostly expedited by our brain’s wonderful ability to edit out bad memories and experiences – but there’s also the bittersweet feeling of loss. It’s attractive and dangerous because it’s self-generated fiction.
So let’s get to the meat: are we becoming a race of nonresilient, narcissistic, inpatient, rude, entitled wankers (NNIREWs)?
I’ve tried to place a context around why we’re potentially turning into a species of arseholes, now let’s look at the effects (the arseholification if you will)… All this and more in Part 2!