On The Record: Homo Sapiens 2.0, I Think Not
In the halcyon days of the dot-com boom I was fond of quoting Charles Darwin, citing him as the original New Media Guru. After all, this was the fellow who, in 1859, wrote: "Many more species are born than can possibly survive."
Few with the faintest instinct of the mass extinction that was the dot-bomb crash could fail to see the applicability of this kind of dot-com Darwinism. More significantly, Darwin's theories that it was the ability to adapt rather than brute strength that ensured long-term success became highly evident in the period following the downturn. Most dot-com darlings went down despite their best efforts to survive, but many of those that struggled on did so through some degree of reinvention.
Moving the clock forward to today, when the Web is a bona fide mass medium and the rules of business have asserted themselves, we find the references to evolution being applied again - but this time in a very different way.
One hears references from conference platforms and columns such as this one that young people - those who have grown up with interactivity and the Web - have become different from us (the old farts) to the extent that maybe they are "hard-wired" differently; that their brains are actually functioning differently from ours.
Before I go any further, I should make clear that I am certainly not a neuroscientist and can point to no hard scientific fact for the viewpoint I'm going to outline below, but as there's nothing worse than an opinion column without an opinion, I'm not going to let that stop me.
As you may have detected by now, I don't buy the "rewired" theory of evolution. There's a kind of evolution going on for sure, but it doesn't involve wires in the brain or any other body parts.
If one is looking for evidence of sustained physical change as part of one's definition of evolution, then we are most likely to see humans developing a natural resistance to carpal tunnel syndrome (assuming the keyboard sticks around long enough). We'll also probably start to become more permanently hunched over in a perverse return to the physical bearing of our humanoid ancestors.
The fact is that we haven't evolved significantly for the last few thousand years - some would say since we stopped hunting and gathering and established the first permanent settlements in Mesopotamia.
In my more cynical moments I'm inclined to believe that much of this talk of being differently wired is driven by the sense of disconnectedness felt by many of us who can't tune in to a lot of behavior we witness, who don't feel comfortable not knowing what is likely to come next, and who can't fathom why every young person we know lays out intimate details of their lives online. Putting it down to a difference in the cranial wiring is a way to live with the unease of not comprehending the differences.
And to those of you who say that you could never have multitasked like these kids multitask when you were their age - how do you know? Maybe you could have if you'd had the opportunity. Didn't your parents scratch their heads at your homework habits as you wrote your essays in front of the TV or with the stereo blasting away?
Let's face it: There's always been a comprehension gap between teens and parents. The Web simply amplifies that gap as young people who turn to it as their primary medium of expression develop patterns of communication new to those of us on the wrong side of 25.
And it's here - when one talks in terms of sociological and behavioral evolution - that the Web is having a profound effect on us all, but especially on the younger age groups who are inventing what will become tomorrow's communication norms and conventions. It has massive implications for advertisers, media owners, and society as a whole. But it's less about the medium causing our species to evolve than it is about how we are adapting the medium to our purposes and desires.
If you're looking for a historical parallel, rather than evolutionary analogies, you could do worse than look at the impact of the spread of literacy in the 1800s. Like the Web, it accelerated learning, the spread of ideas, the capturing of experiences and communication with others outside one's immediate geographic community. The Web has massively accelerated all of these and added much more besides. If the Web and all its capabilities is creating Consumer 2.0, then his ancestor on the evolutionary ladder - Consumer 1.0 - can probably be found somewhere in the birth of mass literacy.