What's Happening to Us?

Matt Patterson
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Posted: Mar 02, 2009 2:29 PM
What's Happening to Us?

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.

3) Attention span: This is perhaps the most disturbing side effect of the digital revolution. Sustained concentration is a requisite for the mastery of any science, art, or skill. It is also a requisite for the acquisition of wisdom, which can only be found in the depths of, and in reflecting upon, the great literary works. But the desire and ability to master complicated skills or to make it through the great books are rapidly vanishing, as any teacher will ruefully attest. What does this portend for the moral and intellectual health of our species?

There is another chilling side effect of information technology. As one of Greenfield's interns is reported to have said, "In a world where private thoughts and feelings are posted on the Internet for all to see, it's hard to see where ourselves finish and the outside world begins." The Internet is erasing the precious boundary between public and private. It is not hard to imagine that such a distinction will seem quaint in years hence.

But that boundary exists for a reason, and its appearance was crucial to our development. The emergence of the "I" as distinct from the outside world set in motion the Western revolution in science, art and philosophy: To be separate from nature is to be able to understand it and, eventually, conquer it.

Greenfield and others are warning that our minds are changing. But the way our minds have worked until now gave us, among other things, the Internet. How the gods must laugh that the crown of our intellect contains within it the erosion thereof.