Whether you like it or not, the digital revolution is here. And if you need some convincing, consider these stats compiled by NowSourcing and published on Mashable:
As of 2012, there are approximately 2,405,518,376 Internet users in the world, which represents a 566.4 percent increase since 2000.
72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
40 million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day.
Chances are, you’re part of this revolution. After all, you’re reading this on a computer or mobile device, aren’t you? And, if you’re like 62 percent of Americans, you probably prefer to bank online.
According to Pew Internet, 45 percent of American adults have a smartphone and 31 percent own a tablet computer, as of December 2012 and January 2013, respectively. And as of April 2012, 55 percent of adult mobile phone owners use the Internet on their phones – double the amount of three years prior.
And that’s just the beginning. As noted in a recent article by the Wall Street Journal, other smart technologies – like forks that tell you when you’re eating too fast and electronic toothbrushes that promote good dental hygiene – are rapidly becoming part of our daily lives.
But is all this technology making us smarter, better-informed individuals? Or is it creating a society of lazy thinkers and socially awkward screen-gazers?
Instant Pleasure = Instant Distraction
Discovery News offers the following quote from a Florida newspaper: “We are a gadget-happy nation, but the gadgets make us dumber, not smarter.” But this wasn’t written in conjunction with the release of the latest iPhone® or Windows® tablet – it was a reporter’s 1977 response to then-new technologies like cassette tapes and instant cameras.
While the question of technology’s impact on our brains may be longstanding, the ubiquity of mobile phones, tablets and computers has made it that much more relevant.
Forbes notes that recent research by Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine found that people who work on computers click between windows an average of 37 times an hour – mostly to check e-mail or browse the Internet.
While the ability to multitask used to be a good thing, recently it’s almost become a dirty word. Forbes points out that several studies show that multitasking increases stress, which in turn negatively affects short-term memory, and therefore employee performance.
So why do we hop from window to window when we know we should be giving our undivided attention to a work-related spreadsheet?
Forbes suggests that the answer lies in our genetic make up. It points out that when we encounter something new and exciting, our brains get a rush of the chemical dopamine, which human beings love, thanks to biology. Back in the day, dopamine was an important biological component in identifying exciting new developments, like sources of food or predators. But today, we get tons of little rushes due to constant new discoveries, like a text from a sibling who lives across the country, a Facebook message from an old high school friend or a chat bubble that contains a link to a particularly adorable cat video.
So how detrimental is this new way of experiencing the world? Forbes notes that Oxford neuroscientist Susan Greenfield told British reporters that our relationship to technology is “rewiring the brain,” and calls it a threat “almost as important as climate change.”
How Technology Helps Us
But while living so much online can potentially carry consequences, researchers say it’s not all bad. Technology, they say, can help us consume less, reduce stress by working at home and offer other psychological benefits.
In an interview with The Kernel, Dr. Jillianne Code, Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria, and a research scientist who studies the influence of the Internet on learning, notes that society’s fear of emerging technologies is nothing new. “It happened with film, television, and video games…and now the Internet,” she says.
The Kernel goes on to examine a 2011 study by Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University that aimed to refute claims that Googling everything is weakening our memory. Through a series of experiments, Sparrow found that computer use doesn’t exactly worsen your memory; finding facts via tools like Google simply causes you to store information a different way.
Social networks, seen by some as time wasters, can also offer benefits. GoodTherapy.org notes that a recent study at Portland State University in Oregon found that social media helped young people with psychological issues feel less isolated, gave them guidance about living independently and promoted engagement with others.
“Good Smart” and “Bad Smart”
Time notes that last year’s TED conference (a digitally-driven destination if there ever was one) featured several talks on the benefits of toning down our love affair with technology, or at least focusing on the ways that it allows us to have better connections with other people.
While it’s unlikely that our society will completely ditch our beloved iPads and Android™ phones, you can take steps to ensure technology isn’t taking over your life.
The Harvard Business Review notes that researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse have compared our tech-dependency with a love of drugs or alcohol, and lauds a feature you’ll find on every device: the “off” switch. The author even suggests following her lead and taking a “tech Shabbat” once a week by unplugging for 24-hours and living a blissfully disconnected life.
The Wall Street Journal suggests keeping in mind the difference between “good smart” and “bad smart.” They note that technologies that are “good smart” (like an appliance that tells you when the national power grid is overloaded) give us information and control, while “bad smart” technologies (such as a program that measures your recycling behavior and aggressively shames you if it’s not up to snuff) make us feel unnecessary pressure that does little to improve our lives.
Do you think technology makes your life easier or more stressful? What gadget can you not live without?