The More Things Change
Is technology really making the world a better place for all of us?
Ben David is working on something that’s potentially going to make him very, very rich. He’s understandably vague about what it is and when pressed to elucidate, he’ll say it’s a tech product, and no more. A self-described technology ambassador, Ben is the IT Director for a San Francisco Bay Area design agency. Ben enjoys his work immensely and is paid well. As he tells it: “I make the connections between humans and machines easier and somehow I make more money than people who go into space, more than people who know how to make a suspension bridge or a submarine. It's ridiculous and awesome!” Like many technophiles, he can’t imagine his life without technology and is almost always plugged into some sort of device.

Ben often talks about being bored. He explains that culturally very little satisfies or excites him anymore. As someone who has spent most of his waking hours plugged into the World Wide Web since its inception, he claims he’s “seen it all.” Yet he’s an unceasing evangelist for technology and the power and freedom that he feels it gives people. He’s also extremely interested in the future, especially if it means that life for humans will be very different than it is now.There are many people like Ben; techno-optimists who have heard the siren song of technology and now themselves argue, quite convincingly, that we should all jump on the bandwagon. Technology expands and augments the human quest for satisfaction and happiness they say; we should welcome its proliferation because it opens up new frontiers of opportunity and serves as a fulfillment service to help us realize our biggest and boldest personal dreams.Some, such as Clay Shirky, who rose to fame with his first book, Here Comes Everybody, and is one of the brightest stars in the technology intelligentsia firmament, even go so far as to contend that with the advent of online tools that allow new forms of collaboration, people are now learning how to use free time for creative acts that help others, rather than consumptive ones. Shirky believes that this connects us and amplifies the power of the Internet to create a better world for everyone (source: Cognitive Surplus).

I don’t fully buy it and neither should you.

Born of a capitalist free market economy, the technology industry is first and foremost about money. Just like it’s older sibling, television, the primary purpose of online technology is to get people to spend more of their lives engaging with it. Increasing complexity in media–both in the messages and the mediums that deliver them–is driven, as Steven Johnson points out in his book, Everything Bad Is Good For You, by economics, not an altruistic desire on the part of media and technology conglomerates to make people smarter or to improve the quality of their lives. Even so-called “free” and open source technology like social media, search and SMART phone apps, are all tied to money in some way and come at a cost to our freedom and privacy: every one of us is leaving behind virtual breadcrumbs as we move around the web, and companies are collecting that data to help customize advertisements to put in front of us. What’s quite eerie about this is the immediacy with which Internet advertising reflects our most recent activities online. This practice, called “retargeting” is only able to happen because the computers we surf the Web with are being tagged with code that describes our digital movements to companies like Apple, Google and Facebook–companies that the vast majority of Americans interact with and companies that are making billions of dollars by doing so (source: Piccin).

The technology Sirens, in service to their corporate masters, call us to their shores by making the web more and more engaging and in this they’ve been astoundingly successful. Media consumption on all the “three screens” of television, computers and mobile phones is increasing in America every year (source: Nielsen). In fact, as our choices in media increase, we’ve shunted other “offline” activities away in favor of consumption (source: BLS, ATUS).  By answering the Sirens’ call we’re not saving the world, as Shirky would have us believe; we’re not all doing good and we’re not really coming together. We’re becoming more and more disassociated from one another and we’re mostly consuming “crap”– “crap” on television, “crap” on the Internet and “crap” on our phones. The majority of Americans are engaging in the most inane forms of creation and sharing in addition to the hundreds of billions of hours they spend consuming television shows (source: Nielsen).

Worse yet, we’re probably not getting any smarter either, however the cornerstone of the technophile argument is that as a whole, society is becoming collectively more intelligent because of our media consumption. Johnson asserts that with constant advancement and new channels for communication, the Internet forces us to be participatory and to learn new things, to probe and master new skills and make social connections. Furthermore, he says, the fact that people are producing and sharing media on the web, not just passively consuming it, is also adding more richness. As a result, he believes that the Internet is making more intellectual demands on us, not less.

The problem with this argument is that to date, there hasn’t been much research in this area, so without data to fall back on, all we can know for sure is that we’re becoming smarter and better at consuming. A gamer develops cognitive skills and gets really, really good at gaming, for example, but there’s no strong evidence that those skills translate to other areas of life, and that it makes any measurable difference in the quality of that gamer’s life, overall. The same goes for the time we spend on the Web and with social media, both of which can foster staggering intellectual laziness and troubling superficiality. In 2010, the three most popular searches in the U.S. on Google were Chatroulette, the iPad and Justine Bieber (source: Google zeitgeist). And if the fact that that highest trending topics discussed on Facebook in 2010–which some 150 million Americans use–were HMU, (an abbreviation of the term “hit me up”), and Justin Bieber, are any indication, the majority of Americans aren’t using social media to do anything other than socialize and entertain themselves either. All of this seems to fly in the face of Johnson’s assertion that “we are not innate slackers, drawn inexorably to the least offensive and least complicated entertainment available,” (source: Johnson, 199).

What many technophiles fail to acknowledge, yet many of us have an uncomfortable feeling about, is that society is perhaps on some level actually becoming dumber because of how much we are able to share with each other. It’s wonderful to be able to find an amazing array of things online, but the noise to signal ratio on the Web is extremely high and for every website that is useful, accurate and educational; there are many more that are futile, erroneous and uninstructive. And it doesn’t stop with the Internet. The “crap” to “good” ratio on all three screens is high and Americans are eating it up. Of the more than 283 million TV watching Americans in this country, only about 10%, or less than 30 million of those, are subscribers to channels like HBO, which is known for its intellectually challenging content. The rest are plugged into prime time shows like American Idol and The Bachelor (source: TV Guide).  Meanwhile on mobile phones, of all the things people could be using their SMART phones for, games are the most popular applications downloaded by owners (source: Nielsen).

Why then, are most of us taking the path of least resistance when there’s so much wonderful stuff out there for us to tap into? Why are many of us becoming obese and neglecting other analog pursuits in order to spend time in front of a screen? It’s easy to play armchair psychologist and say that Americans most often seek out the comforting, “easy on the brain” things in popular culture that let us tune out and “relax” and be distracted in response to the stressors of things like increasingly long days of work, school, child rearing or relationships, but perhaps there’s something deeper and more insidious going on here. Maybe we can’t help ourselves.

When scientists first started to research how the brain worked they thought that it hardened as it aged and that once hardened, it never changed. They’ve since realized that the brain is very receptive in response to stimuli and can change and form new neural pathways. Repeated actions become habits that make the brain rewire itself into patterns of behaviors that we then need and crave. Because of our technology use, parts of our brains that we used before are getting used less so they are atrophying; the parts of our brain that we now use to process technology are getting bigger (source: Hedayati) It’s possible that we’re getting to the point where we couldn’t stop our love affair with technology, even if we wanted to. All of which is making a small group of people – the technology intelligentsia and corporate executives amongst us, very rich and powerful.

Most people would agree that our minds are changing but still seem unable to resist the Sirens’ seductive song. Consumerism is deeply and perhaps inextricably embedded into our culture and marketers are cynically manipulating our basic human desires, such as the need to belong, solace, comfort, validation, company of others, personal satisfaction, being part of something, trust, self-esteem, following strong role models, pursuing aspirational ideals, pride, etc. to maximize profit by leveraging the internet and social media to form strong communities online. The sense of belonging certain people feel from purchasing something and thus gaining access to a brand “family” of people online they may never meet in person, is just as powerful, and perhaps more comfortable to be a part of, than face-to-face social groups. In Douglas Atkin’s 2004 documentary, The Persuaders, he shows how resonance with a brand translates into deep loyalty and personal identification for people and is eerily reminiscent of how the church becomes a powerful force in some people’s lives–emotional dependence leading to unquestioning loyalty and a willingness to open one’s pocketbook.

Coupled with this blind loyalty for many is the trust and illusion that the World Wide Web is a free and open place, but most Americans aren’t aware that they’re not being allowed to see all of it. In his book, The Filter Bubble, What The Internet is Hiding From You, Eli Parsi conducted an experiment with seven of his friends, asking them all to search for the exact same thing on Google. None of them got the same results; search was being personalized differently for each of them. During his research, Parsi discovered that Google is far from the only company doing this–nearly every major website is doing it, in one way or another, as part of an elaborate algorithm designed to get Americans to consume in the way the corporations want them to consume. Internet users in the U.S. and beyond are giving themselves over to an undemocratic system in which companies like Google make billions of dollars off of the data people give them without giving those people much control over how it’s used or even what it is (source: Popova). If brands are the church, technology is the altar at which people sacrifice themselves.

Nicholas Carr thinks that all of the time we spend on the Internet is changing our brains to the point where there might be no going back. In his book The Shallows, Carr says that in order to be intelligent we must be able to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and the web makes it hard for us to do this as the working memory parts of our brain are constantly being overloaded. By providing access to diverse sources of condensed data, powerful search capabilities and various tools for filtering, the Internet makes it easy for us to quickly share our thoughts and opinions with other people. But like some love affairs he says, there may be a dark side: The trade-off is that our brains need to become processing units to deal with all of it, almost like the machines that are providing the information. In other words, as we get more and more sucked into sophisticated messaging, and interact with the seductive technology that allows us to shop and entertain ourselves to our hearts content, we may actually be becoming less human.

Many of us can’t escape this though–everyone we work or go to school with is online, and everyone we're friends with is online, even everyone in our family is online. Without the Internet we wouldn’t be able to work or study, use our credit cards, cellphones, or have access to our bank accounts. Our lives are being slowly but surely changed and, some would say, enslaved, by technology, since it’s now deeply embedded into almost every facet of our culture. We may just be at the beginning of an evolutionary process that is making us more machine-like. Yet, technology marches on, ignoring the concerns of the Cassandras; obedient only to the needs of the digerati and corporation executives who provide the funds to keep evolving the industry.

The digital options available to us are ever expanding, but our human ability to process and store information has remained relatively constant over time. Is it alarmist to suggest then that technology is changing our thinking and making us distracted, less focused as we try to keep up with it, and is it something we should all be aware of and concerned about? I bounce the question off Ben David. "I hate this fucking question," he replies. "I see this line of rhetoric used all the time and I hate it. Technology is a tool, just like a power saw is a tool. Is everyone who has a power saw a carpenter? No. Plus, when did humans give up making choices for themselves? Should I use a horse and buggy or drive a car? (It's a choice). Technology doesn't make us distracted; we choose to be distracted.”

Perhaps we’ve started to take this pattern of ubiquity for granted and the changes it brings, for granted. Perhaps we're starting to simply assume unquestioningly that technology will be a part of our lives, a solution for every task, a remedy for boredom, no matter what. Carr asserts that as the uses of the Internet have proliferated, and connections have gotten faster, so has the time we’ve spent on it. Young people, who are more vulnerable developmentally, are spending more time online than any other age group. Youth aged 8 to 18 jam on average almost 11 hours of screen time into a day, plus an additional hour and half of texting and talking via mobile phone. Much of this is done as multi-tasking, as many young users manage to simultaneously watch TV, text on their mobile phones, and communicate via chat or Instant Messenger inside their social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace on their computers and phones, all at the same time (source: Kaiser Family Foundation). An online survey of more than 1500 young people across America showed that Facebook is the preferred social networking tool for most youth, over and above MySpace and has become a microcosm of the Internet. Most kids prefer to use Facebook as the tool for doing everything they want to accomplish online, such as watching movies, playing games, reading the news, emailing and instant messaging with friends and looking at video and pictures (source: ISIS). How is all of this time spent in front of a screen impacting the developmental vulnerabilities of their young brains?

I spoke with some teachers I know, all of whom expressed some concern over their students’ relationship with technology. Kirsten Smith teaches second grade in a bay area suburb; her sister, Amanda Lewis, teaches High School English, Media Studies and Creative Writing a few towns away. Debbie Jamison is a math professor at San Francisco University. Each of them have been teaching for more than 15 years and in the years they’ve been on the job, they’ve seen technology play an increasingly larger role in the classroom, both in how students are learning, and what they as teachers have to do to stay up on it and get students interested, engaged and ready for the rest of their lives.

Kirsten feels that seven and eight year olds today are different than the second graders she taught 10 years ago or 20 years ago.  She sees “many more students who have trouble staying focused on [her] teaching and their seat work,” and thinks that many of the students have a “shorter attention span.” Amanda has noticed that the students in her English and Creative writing classes no longer “want to discuss or write to one prompt for 50 minutes,” and “definitely like things to move quickly in the classroom.” One of the major problems she sees is that “students are more distracted now than before; they are sometimes over focused on the wrong thing– not the teaching or learning they should be focused on.”
All of them talked about how students now opt to go to the “always on” answer box when faced with a question. Debbie told me: “In some ways this narrows their perspective, because they think everything is known and all information there is to have is already out there. This can lead to them being less willing to think about something for a long time, especially if they perceive it as something that already has a “right” answer.”

Multimedia consumption and engagement on social media such as Facebook, requires a different set of thinking skills than reading and doesn’t train the mind to follow sustained textual narratives. Millenials, who’ve spent their entire lives online, think differently than other generations. Debbie describes the differences she’s seeing: “My students are educated, intelligent undergraduates and I can feel many of them losing focus on what I am saying after three sentences. They cannot think in paragraphs, let alone pages. Not much joined up thinking, mostly pixels of thought. What they do have is computer literacy, and yes they do know where to find stuff fast, but they don't really know how to evaluate gold from crap.” In a world where, for now at least, a high premium is still placed primarily on the ability to read and perform analyses of dense texts in academic and professional settings, digital natives, who are more willing to absorb information when it’s packaged as “edu-tainment,” rather than learning it in more traditional ways, are at a distinct disadvantage.

Fueled by our love affair with all things digital, the biggest growth areas in jobs in the last twenty years or so have been technology based. It’s a trend that is highly unlikely to change yet school curricula still aren’t being designed to keep up. Young people entering the workplace are required to be facile with technology for all levels of success, from entry-level jobs to engineering and technical fields, but few high school classes have enough time built into them for students to learn and practice the fluid skills needed to be successful in a changing workplace.

Even when budgets exist to give students access to the latest technologies, this information is out of date by the time they leave high school and college and start work, simply by virtue of the fact that technology and its accompanying ethical implications are changing so quickly from year to year. This means that the teaching around technology in schools will always be somewhat behind the curve. Yet this education is critical for young people in order for them to have a healthy relationship with technology so they don’t become enmeshed with it. According to humanist Neil Postman: “If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it.” (Source: Postman)

As digital natives move through childhood and into maturity it’s understandable why many parents feel on shaky ground. The same advances in computer and telecommunication technology that can allow children to reach out to new sources of knowledge and cultural experiences also leave them susceptible to potential exploitation and harm, not so much by individuals they may encounter online that could harm them, but by their prolonged exposure to entertainment through technology, all brought to them daily and incessantly by their favorite brands.

Teachers have a lot of work to do to prepare young people to succeed in a future world that is moving so quickly and that on many levels can barely be imagined, but they struggle to help their students navigate through this world with little or no support from the technology industry that calls seductively to youth to embrace it. Where Ami teaches, the school often purchases technology products without providing teachers enough training and time to integrate technology into the content or align it with site goals and learning needs of the students. Tellingly, there are no business or technology experts on hand to provide support or instruction. It’s not surprising really. Why opt to teach in a classroom or consult with a school when they can be pursuing a much more lucrative career in the business world?

If technology really were about connecting us all and making humanity better for everyone, the best and the brightest from the industry, like Ben David and Clay Shirky, would be in the classrooms, providing technology support to schools. Instead they’re mostly in the business world, looking for their next speaking engagement or venture capital funding. Classrooms could be hotbeds of innovation, but that isn’t what the technology Sirens want; students are indeed getting an education in technology, but it’s coming from their exposure to it through popular culture and brands.
For digital natives, the line between work and play is blurred indefinitely due to technology. Because of this, they unwittingly prepare themselves for a life in front of a screen as knowledge laborers, living a life of indentured servitude to server farm owners and a small enclave of elites who own most of the wealth, power and freedoms that technology provides. The more they work on the Internet, the more distracted and less able they may become to experience subtle emotions or to think deeply and creatively. Calculative thinking–the type of processing computers do–may one day come to be accepted as the only way to think as opposed to contemplative thinking, which is inherently a human trait. If the march of technological advancement continues unabated, our children’s progeny may ultimately find themselves deeply enough integrated into systems of machines, that they become less and less biological. Distraction and lack of focus will seem like fond, distant memories and be the very least of their worries.

The technophiles can be dismissive but these days may not be too far away. Already we are enmeshed with technology to the point that we are beginning to redefine life and death. Fascinatingly, we expend an enormous amount of energy and money making technologies that can save our weakest links all of which redefines what it means to be human and to have lived a fulfilled life (source: Gawande). More and more, we are bringing into our bodies and selves technological affordances that allow us to do better than we would have in the past without them. The range goes from cochlear implants, heart valves and artificial joints all the way to things we have imagined, but not yet experienced, such as interventions that can help with brain function and reverse terminal illnesses (source: Children’s Hospital).

At some point, if the technology Sirens get their way, we may be willing to give up everything and even assume new forms to live longer; a complete meshing of man and machine that will create a new range of opportunities and unsurpassed wealth opportunities, or gain the potential for eternal post-human life by transferring the neural correlates of our emotions and personalities into an avatar in a virtual world, like something from the wildly popular Matrix film series. The price of admission? Giving up our uniquely human identity. The changes would come gradually of course, so slowly that we would probably get used to them long before many of us started to feel anything was truly amiss (source Joy).

Technology can nurture a sense of selflessness. Access to other human beings through the web allows some to develop a sense of civic duty, and empathy for humanity, all of which is core to the continuation of civic society and to fulfillment as human beings. There are some techno giants, like Bill Gates, who are putting their money where their mouth is and using their smarts about technology, and the wealth it has brought them, to make the world a better place (source: Ferenstein). But they’re sadly the exception to the rule. I ask Ben if “the thing” he’s investing a lot of time in after hours has any potential to improve the lives of people or do good for the world. He thinks for a moment then shakes his head, no. But he tells me again how cool and clever it is and that it’s going to make money for people. The thing about Ben is that he’s not motivated by money though; he makes enough already. So I press him to tell me if he’s excited by it, if it eases his boredom, to tell me why he’s working on this new technology product? Again, he says no. What he says instead is this: “Access to knowledge is power. The Internet and the devices we use to access it are game changers. We don't have to wait for the church or the University to impart knowledge to us; it's all here waiting for us to assimilate. The game is ours to change.” But the dangers are the same as they have always been for humanity–we use up resources chasing our desire for wealth and power with little regard for the long-term costs. We are building machines hoping they will save us all from ourselves fully knowing that there is a possibility that when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence the correct answer might be, as Bill Joy fears, to get rid of the humans (source: Joy).  Sometimes it’s hard not to get the sense that people like Ben can’t wait.

As society and the technology that’s driving change evolves and we continue to find new and different ways to connect with each other we must be mindful of how those connections are changing us; that most of them are rooted in marketing transactions, and that they ultimatelyefit someone else financially. Marketers package and sell technology to us as an opportunity to have meaningful dialogue and even deeper connections, but we must always remember that the Internet exists primarily to facilitate connections between people that are transactional in nature and that we’re still consuming.

Granted, for some people, engagement with technology is leading to valuable and influential new forms of human expression, but for the masses, the internet limits, binds and attenuates the fulfillment of their human potential–buying them off them with greater than ever access to popular culture entertainment to keep them addicted to consuming. And this creates great power, freedom and wealth for the few. The more we use the Internet, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function. Therefore we should evaluate what we lose from spending time on the Internet as much as we look at what we gain from it.

What we need to remember is that for now, at least, technology is just a tool, and it exists to serve us, not the other way around. We need to remember that every tool imposes limitations even as it opens up possibilities. What makes us most human is what is least machine-like about us ­­­­– the connections between our mind and body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking and our capacity for emotion and creativity. For the time being, at least, the skill, uniqueness and talent is in the chair, not the box.

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