The Internet produces a profound contradiction - we have more communications than ever, but never have our connections to one another been so fragile and ephemeral.
That is the warning from Susan Greenfield, Oxford neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institute. The Internet, and especially social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, she feels, may be hazardous to our mental and social health.
She worries that these technologies are producing whole generations of narcissists unable to engage in meaningful dialogue. "I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues," she is quoted in the U.K.'s Daily Mail. "It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations."
In other words, we are evolving.
Information technology is exerting Darwinian pressure on us, selecting for some traits, weeding out others. Evolution itself is neither good nor bad, of course - it is a "blind watchmaker" with no moral or teleological intent. The question is whether we value the qualities that are disappearing from human consciousness. Consider the changes being wrought in the areas of 1) ego formation, 2) non-virtual social interaction, and 3) attention span.
1) Ego: A healthy ego can be a spur to ambition and achievement. But the kind of ego that the Internet breeds, where every taste and habit, every daily detail, is considered worthy of a blog post or Twitter, is nefarious and in fact inhibits ambition - if you are a star in your own web world, why accomplish anything in the real world?
2) Face to face contact: Greenfield is right, it is hard. You have to pay attention to your interlocutor; be aware of changes in vocal tone and pitch. You have to be alert to subtle signs like sweat, blush and eye movement, and take all of this into account when formulating a response. These types of interactions shaped our cognition, making our ancestors more mentally agile. Their loss or degradation will have serious consequences for our mental acuity and the quality of our relationships.