Information and Communication Technology (ICT) profoundly affects almost everyone in the US both personally and interpersonally. With the advent of 5G and the IoT, undoubtedly, there will be new trends and iterations introduced. These will include robots, personal assistants, Virtual Reality (VR), artificial intelligence, the merging of human and technology, and a host of other applications as yet unknown. What is clear is that our immersion in digital technology will increase as every object takes up residence in the Cloud, and the Cloud rains back on our world.
Admittedly, there can be some benefits to how our digital world impacts our brains and humanity. Consider this case:
A teenager with Asperger Syndrome struggled for years to connect deeply with others, feeling always on the “outside looking in.” Thanks to social media, he gained a huge Facebook presence among people who appreciated his enthusiasm and vast knowledge in his area of special interest. Feeling validated and encouraged, this young man gained much needed confidence and a belief in himself that thankfully spilled over into his real life. He is now productively occupied and alive both in and out of cyber space.
But there are also serious and devastating downsides. Consider this case:
Research journalist, Mary Aiken, described being on a train where she observed a mother nursing her infant. The infant’s eyes were affixed adoringly on the mother’s face while the mother, immersed in the cyber world, stared relentlessly at her smart phone for 30 long minutes. The loss to this child and to the mother is irretrievable.
Already – before the IoT with robots, Virtual Reality and Personal Assistants – how many minutes, hours, days, or years of real human-to-human contact have we “swiped away” while trapped in the worldwide web? A poignant visualization of this loss can be seen here. Every moment spent in cyber space is a moment lost or diminished from the real world – a significant sacrifice to make.
In an article from the New Yorker, Andrew Sullivan describes how digital connectivity has replaced what can be the more time intensive and sometimes complicated interpersonal communications:
“Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human. By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.
Sullivan also explains how it is that digital connectivity has come to consume so many of us:
Not long ago, surfing the web, however addictive, was a stationary activity. At your desk at work, or at home on your laptop, you disappeared down a rabbit hole of links and resurfaced minutes (or hours) later to reencounter the world. But the smartphone then went and made the rabbit hole portable, inviting us to get lost in it anywhere, at any time, whatever else we might be doing. Information soon penetrated every waking moment of our lives.”
“Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time…. Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.”
Two cities in Germany, Augsburg and Cologne, saw fit to install traffic lights in the ground to protect “pedtextrians” (yes, those who walk while texting). Glued to their smart phones, eyes focused downward, pedtextrians might absentmindedly walk into the street at a red light; and so these two cities saw fit to embed traffic lights in the ground! Seduced by their personal portal into cyber space, so many people are going about life now oblivious to the sights, sounds, textures, and goings on of the world around them.
Feuilleton Editor and Co-Publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, muses about whether, in light of the changes that technology has wrought on humanity, we are turning into a new species, “informavores.”
In a TED Talk from 2012, Connected but Alone , cultural analyst, Sherry Turkle noted, “We’re letting it [digital connectivity] take us places that we don’t want to go.” Turkle then added, “Those little devices…in our pocket are so powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are.” Essentially, we have handed over to the wireless industry the power to define who we are and what we do – in short, our humanity. Following are some of the ways that excessive digital connectivity has been shown to adversely impact our brains, relationships, and humanity.
According to Maurice Conti, we are on the cusp of a new era – the Augmented Age. In a TEDx talk, The Future of Human Augmentation, Conti predicts:
“In this new era, your natural human capabilities are going to be augmented by computational systems that help you think, robotic systems that help you make, and digital nervous systems that connect you to the world far beyond your natural senses.
If he is correct that the world is going to change dramatically, that there will be a new partnership between humans and technology, and that we are to become human cyborgs, how will this global high-speed metamorphosis impact our brains and humanity? Where we are headed is unknowable, but deeply troubling to those who treasure the mystery and miracle of life.
Two cities in Germany, Augsburg and Cologne, saw fit to install traffic lights in the ground to protect “pedtextrians” (yes, those who walk while texting). Glued to their smart phones, eyes focused downward, pedtextrians might absentmindedly walk into the street at a red light; and so these two cities saw fit to embed traffic lights in the ground! Seduced by their personal portal into cyber space, so many people are going about life now oblivious to the sights, sounds, textures, and goings on of the world around them. Science historian George Dyson,asks, “What if the cost of machines that think, is people who don’t?” Frank Schirrmacher, Feuilleton Editor and Co-Publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, muses about whether, in light of the changes that technology has wrought on humanity, we are turning into a new species, “informavores.” In a TED Talk from 2012, Connected but Alone , cultural analyst, Sherry Turkle noted, “We’re letting it [digital connectivity] take us places that we don’t want to go.” Turkle then added, “Those little devices…in our pocket are so powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are.” Essentially, we have handed over to the wireless industry the power to define who we are and what we do – in short, our humanity. Following are some of the ways that excessive digital connectivity has been shown to adversely impact our brains, relationships, and humanity.
5 ways that digital connectivity can adversely impact our brains, relationships, and humanity:
- Physiologic changes to our brain
- Distractibility and multitasking
- Impairment of social skills
- Narcissism and loss of empathy
When being asked about their relationship to digital technology, many young people unabashedly state they are, “for sure addicted to their smart phone.” The Kaiser Family Foundation released a study in 2010 that was one of the most comprehensive studies available on American youth and media. According to the study: ”8 to 18 year-olds spend more time with media than with any other activity besides (maybe) sleeping.” (Please note this study was conducted in the early stages of smart phones.)
In an article from Newsweek Magazine, Is the Internet Making Us Crazy? What the New Research Says, author Tony Docoupil writes that the average teen in 2012 “processed” 3700 text messages a month. What is digital addiction and how prevalent a condition is it? According to Net Addiction – a website dedicated to Internet addiction – Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), refers to
“any online-related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment.”
IAD, though not listed in the DSM-5, 2013 manual, is nonetheless considered a bonafide behavioral addiction by many professionals. Please note that Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), is included in the DSM-5 manual. In a Medscape Medical News article following the American Psychiatric Association’s 2014 annual meeting, Brain Abnormalities Linked to ‘Internet Addiction’, author Pauline Anderson states that about 26.3% of American youth suffer from IAD. According to Dr. Jadapalle, this is more than alcohol and illicit drug use disorders. Dr. Kimberly Young, psychologist and internationally known expert on Internet addiction, and founder of the Center for Internet Addiction writes:
“In 2014, the first Internet Congress on Internet Addiction Disorders was held in Milan showing that Korea is the leader [and] has established the first comprehensive, national prevention and re-education program for Screen Addictions. China and Japan utilize inpatient care with Internet fasting camps. Australia developed the first inpatient adolescent treatment program. Italy has inpatient centers in Milan and Rome. France uses early education in schools and in the U.S., Internet Gaming Addiction is now listed in Section 3 of the DSM-5. In 2013, Dr. Young founded the first inpatient Internet Addiction Treatment and Recovery Center at the Bradford Regional Medical Center in Bradford, Pa under the supervision of a multidisciplinary clinical team for adults 18 years and over.”
Dr. Alter, associate professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University and author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” stated in recent NY Times interview on digital addiction:
For the book, I spoke with a young man who sat in front of his computer playing a video game for 45 consecutive days! The compulsive playing had destroyed the rest of his life. He ended up at a rehabilitation clinic in Washington State, reSTART, where they specialize in treating young people with gaming dependencies.
Dr. Clifford Nass, formerly a professor at Stanford University and renowned authority on human-computer interaction, suggested a way to rein-in over-indulgence in digital connectivity:
“We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred, and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time, and now never hear, ‘Look at me when I talk to you.’”
Hardly an easy task with IoT robots and personal assistants increasingly taking up residence in our homes.
PHYSIOLOGIC CHANGES TO THE BRAIN:
“New brain scan technology shows that our brains are being rewired. Heavy web users have fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes. The brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts.” – Newsweek, July 2012
Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) actually alters the grey matter of our brains. In a Medscape Medical News article following the American Psychiatric Association’s 2014 annual meeting, Brain Abnormalities Linked to ‘Internet Addiction’, author Pauline Anderson reported:
“A new literature review of 13 published articles showed that people with Internet addiction disorder (IAD), especially those addicted to Internet gaming, tend to have certain brain abnormalities.”
Addiction Help Center states:
“IAD can also affect a person’s health. Internet addiction alters the volume of the brain. The brain changes are similar to those produced by alcohol and cocaine addiction. IAD shrinks the brain’s gray and white matter fibers which results in changes to emotional processing and brain functioning.”
Victoria L. Dunckley, MD, licensed psychologist and internationally known expert on Internet addiction spells out some of these changes in her article, Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain:
“Gray matter atrophy: Multiple studies have shown atrophy (shrinkage or loss of tissue volume) in gray matter areas (where “processing” occurs) in Internet/gaming addiction (Zhou 2011, Yuan 2011, Weng 2013, and Weng 2012). Areas affected included the important frontal lobe, which governs executive functions, such as planning, prioritizing, organizing, and impulse control (“getting stuff done”). Volume loss was also seen in the striatum, which is involved in reward pathways and the suppression of socially unacceptable impulses. A finding of particular concern was damage to an area known is the insula, which is involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical signals with emotion. Aside from the obvious link to violent behavior, these skills dictate the depth and quality of personal relationships.
Dr. Dunckley goes on to describe how the white matter of our brains is compromised as well by Internet Addiction:
“Research has also demonstrated loss of integrity to the brain’s white matter (Lin 2012, Yuan 2011, Hong 2013 and Weng 2013). ‘Spotty’ white matter translates into loss of communication within the brain, including connections to and from various lobes of the same hemisphere, links between the right and left hemispheres, and paths between higher (cognitive) and lower (emotional and survival) brain centers. White matter also connects networks from the brain to the body and vice versa. Interrupted connections may slow down signals, ‘short--circuit’ them, or cause them to be erratic (‘misfire’).”
More research is needed to understand the effects of IAD on our brains. But it is already eminently clear that excessive digital connectivity alters the physiology of our brain, how will merging humans with machines impact the physiology of our brain?
DISTRACTION AND MULTITASKING:
“It seems obvious that doing more than one thing at once would boost productivity. However, research on multitasking suggests that it can actually work against us. As MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller explained in an interview with NPR, most people are actually quickly shifting their attention from one task to another when they think they are doing two or three or eight things at once. That constant change of focus makes our brain less functional, not more.” – Liz Soltan, The Perils of Multitasking
Humans have a limited amount of mental “space” available for focus or attention. We can do two or more simple tasks at the same time, but when it comes to more complex tasks, the research consistently finds that the human brain cannot manage two or more involved tasks at once. A concentrating brain needs to filter out extraneous input, not invite distractions.
Shallow thinking vs. deep attention:
In the NY Times Best Seller book, The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr explains how the Internet is changing the way we think and how we process information.
“Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts….” (p. 10)
The linear, or deep-attention mind ponders less information, but very deeply. The hyper-attention mind scans and aggregates a lot of information, but superficially. Nicholas Carr explains that when using the shallower, or hyper-attention way of thinking and absorbing information, learning is not sufficient to navigate the transfer from short to long-term memory. Additionally, the ability to recall and to apply that learning in other contexts is impaired.
But it’s in long-term memory where associations, concepts, critical thinking, and creativity arise. N. Katherine Hayles, professor emeritus at UCLA, in Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes has a different take on deep attention and hyper attention arguing that both have their advantages and disadvantages:
“Deep attention is essential for coping with complex phenomena such as mathematical theorems, challenging literary works, and complex musical compositions; hyper attention is useful for its flexibility in switching between different information streams, its quick grasp of the gist of material, and its ability to move rapidly among and between different kinds of texts.” (How We Think, p. 69)
Whether one way of thinking is superior to the other is perhaps not the most important question to ask. Presumably, optimal results are achieved when a given task is matched to the most suitable way of thinking to accomplish that particular task. But is one way of thinking replacing the other? Hayles points out that as people are spending more time online now, our ability to for deep thought is decreasing – a prospective loss, which is indeed cause for concern.
But there is a still greater loss to be reckoned with – the desire and ability to be fully present to what’s at hand as we proceed through life. This loss creates a void that distraction and data is then relied upon to fill.
Fast communications, enabled by digital technology, text messages, Facebook posts, etc. are the communication equivalent of fast food. We feel as though we are receiving, but what we get is often nutrient deficient, so in actuality, we are starving ourselves. Un-satiated, we mindlessly go back for more. We “snack” throughout the day on digital treats – ”Tweets”. The addictive cycle is set in motion. As Sherry Turkle puts it in, Alone Together,
“In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.”
Quality foods that nourish take time and thought to prepare. The finest ingredients must be selected from the assortment of nature’s gifts. Every ingredient is carefully tended to from the planting to our plate, and subtle seasonings added till “just so”. With appreciation, we sit down to partake and feel both nourished and satiated. So too with meaningful, mindful, and heart to heart interactions with others – We feel nourished and satiated.
Fast foods are a quick fix. Little attention is given to the quality of the ingredients. Gratification is immediate and short lived…thus the need to keep coming back for more. Taste-buds, blasted with sugar, salt and artificial flavorings, over time become dulled. Unnourished from these foods, we find ourselves snacking all day long.
So too with digital communications – Often, little thought or care is put into messaging. The rush of dopamine from a new Facebook post or the latest Tweet is immediate, short lived, and keeps us coming back for more. Our minds are dulled from being blasted with ever new but inconsequential trivia. Mindlessly, we find ourselves “snacking” on the Internet and texting throughout the day. What will the effects be of expanding our neocortex into the Cloud and adding the entire Internet to our brains, as futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts.
IMPAIRMENT OF SOCIAL SKILLS:
There is mounting evidence that excessive online communication hinders the development of social skills in young people. As people connect more and more to and through technology, they increasingly disconnect from one another in the real world. With fewer face to face communications, young people miss out on learning to read social cues such as body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, timing, and so forth. This deficit has become so prevalent that social skills classes for the real world are now being offered to young people at universities. MIT students can opt to enroll in Charm School to better hone their social skills such as how to make a good first impression, the mechanics of tying a bow tie, and the angle at which silverware should be placed on a plate when finished eating. The University of Iowa offers a course in dinner etiquette, and Boston College has a course that teaches how to ask someone out on a date.
IoT Robots, personal assistants, Virtual Reality, and potentially, merging humans with technology are relatively new, so it’s difficult to predict for certain how these will impact our social development. In a recent Forbes article, Goodbye Loneliness, Hello Sexbots! How Can Robots Transform Human Sex?, author Reenita Das writes, “We predict that by the end of the 2020s, robots will be as ubiquitous as cellphones today.” Das continues,
“Essentially, a decade from now, you could walk into a restaurant and be served by a robot waiter, be greeted by a robot receptionist at the hotel, be ticketed for jaywalking by a Robocop or walk into a hospital, a departmental store or even an office and be helped around by a robot helper!”
For some as yet unknown reasons, humans are increasingly looking to “find comfort in robotic arms,” as Das puts it. Why the high demand? She suggests five distinct groups, each with their own reasons: The social misfits; the bereaved and the elderly; the long-distance couple; the unhappy spouse; the selfish bachelors.
A recent Washington Post article, How millions of kids are being shaped by know-it-all voice assistants, quotes Sandra Calvert, a Georgetown University psychologist and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center:
“How they react and treat this nonhuman entity is, to me, the biggest question….And how does that subsequently affect family dynamics and social interactions with other people?”
The latest from Mattel is Aristotle, a voice assistant/baby-monitor that “grows with your child”. Maybe some people would use Aristotle, but intuitively, it seems obvious that Aristotle would interfere with parent-child bonding and healthy social development — but we must “wait for the studies.”
Does social-media help or hinder connection between people?
In connecting more and more online, are we are losing our ability for genuine connection and understanding of one another? A UCLA psychology study suggests this might be the case. According to writer Stuart Wolpert,
“UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.”
But there’s also another side to the story. When getting to know someone for the first time, many people feel, to some degree or another, shyness or “dis- ease” — At the same time, we also have a deep instinctual longing to connect with one another. Social media offers the perfect platform to balance these conflicting tendencies. As Sherry Turkle notes in her 2012 New York Times Op Ed piece, “In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay.” Online communication also offers a comfortable way for shyer people to “break the ice” when getting to know people. In a Washington Post article, author Michael S. Rosenwald shares the story of Josh Chiles:
Josh Chiles is shy. In a gathering of unfamiliar people, he often waits for someone, anyone, to ask him a question or make small talk. At a party, bar or restaurant, “I just sit there, hoping someone will talk to me,’ he said. ‘I wait.” But on Facebook, the 32-year-old Woodbridge resident is Mr. Personality. He constantly refreshes his status, comments on others’ updates, posts pictures, makes jokes and registers his likes. More important, when he sees his digital connections in person, he said, his shyness often disappears. “There is no doubt that Facebook has improved my life in building relationships with other people, Chiles said.”
Through social media, past relationships can be rekindled, and people can stay in touch with family and friends.
Whether technology hinders our social skills and our ability to read emotions may not as yet be clear. But no need to worry – technology to the rescue: According to researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, technology has now made it [eerily] possible to read human emotions through wireless technology.
“The new device, named ‘EQ-Radio,’ is 87 percent accurate at detecting whether a person is excited, happy, angry or sad—all without on-body sensors or facial-recognition software.”
What will be when this technology is inserted into robots that are used in raising children? Not a far shot at all, given the way the IoT is moving.
The question begs asking — If technology can indeed cause a loss of social skills, is it wise to turn to technology to remedy the loss? Rather, would it not be more sensible to pull back and reassess where we are headed before unleashing yet more?
In light of the serious health effects from exposure to radiation, the privacy violations from big data, and the possibility of hacking these personal assistants and robots, we are doing a great disservice to our children, by our reckless rush toward an unknown industry directed future.
LOSS OF EMPATHY
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ON BRAINS AND HUMANITY