In my last two columns, I’ve looked at how technology may be making us intellectually lazy. The human brain tends to follow the path of least resistance and technology’s goal is to eliminate resistance. Last week, I cautioned that this may end up making us both more shallow in our thinking and more fickle in our social ties. We may become an attention-deficit society, skipping across the surface of the world. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
The debate is not a new one. Momentous technologies generally come complete with their own chorus of naysayers. Whether it’s the invention of writing, the printing press, electronic communication or digital media, the refrain is the same: This will be the end of the world as we know it. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that new technologies are seldom completely beneficial or harmful. Their lasting impact lies somewhere in the middle. With the good comes some bad.
The same will be true for the current digital technologies. The world will change, both for the positive and for the negative. The difference will come in how individuals use the technology. This will spread out along the inevitable bell curve.
Look at television, for instance. A sociologist could make a pretty convincing case for the benefits of TV. A better understanding of the global community helped ease our xenophobic biases. Public demand led to increased international pressure on repressive regimes. There was a sociological leveling that is still happening across cultures. Civil rights and sexual equality were propelled by the coverage they received. Atrocities still happen with far too much regularity, but I personally believe the world is a less savage and brutal place than it was 100 years ago, partially due to the spread of TV.
On the flip side, we have developed a certain laziness of spirit that is fed by TV’s never-ending parade of entertainment to be passively consumed. We spend less time visiting our neighbors. We volunteer less. We’re less involved in our communities. Ironically, we’re more a more idealistic society, but we make poorer neighbors.
The type of programming to be found on TV also shows that despite the passive nature of the medium, we didn’t become stupider en masse. Some of us use TV for enlightenment, and some of us use it to induce ourselves into a coma. At the end of the day, I think the positives and negatives of TV as a technology probably net out to a little better than neutral.
I suspect the same thing is happening with digital media. Some of us are diving deeper
and learning more than ever. Others are clicking their way through site after site of brain porn. Perhaps there are universal effects that will show up over generations that will type the scale one
way or the other, but we’re too early in the trend to see those yet.
The fact is, digital technologies are not changing our brains in a vacuum. Our environment is also changing, and perhaps our brains are just keeping up. The 13-year-old who is frustrating the hell out of us today may be a much better match for the world 20 years from now.
I’ll wrap up by leaving three pieces of advice that seem to provide useful guides for getting the best out of new technologies.
First: A healthy curiosity is something we should never stop nurturing. In particular, I find it helpful to constantly ask “how?” and “why?”
Second: Practice mindfulness. Be aware of your emotions and cognitive biases and recognize them for what they are. This will help you steer things back on track when they’re leading down an unhealthy path.
Third: Move from consuming content to contributing something meaningful. The discipline of publishing tends to push you beyond the shallows
If you embrace the potential of technology, you may still find yourself as an outlier, but technology has done much to allow a few outliers to make a huge difference.