Tech’s Taking It Away

Tech’s Taking It Away

With each passing day, society inches that little bit closer towards cyborgification. That is to say, we are more deeply intertwining our routines and behaviours with technology and social media.

It’s changing us, that much is certain.

You Don’t Stop Growing At 25

We know for a fact that our brain's circuity changes based on the inputs we provide it. Taxi drivers when learning ‘The Knowledge’ were found to have increased grey matter after memorising the roads of London. The same outcome was found in jugglers after learning the skill.

Something a little more monumental to humankind was the advent of reading, which understandably required a massive leap in our cognition. In exchange for this new superpower, according to writer Nicholas Carr, we “lost a lot of our visual acuity in reading nature and reading the world,” like “navigat[ing] by all sorts of natural signs.”

It’s easy to forget that the internet and its adjacent offspring were little more than a twinkle in the eye of futurists as little as thirty years ago.

Newer, Sure. But Better?

Recollecting the age of your favourite actor was once fodder for conversation over the dinner table. Now, that’s outsourced to tech. This somewhat literal thought exercise is being echoed ad infinitum across countless mediums in 2024. Check the weather, plan a workout, recall a date, find a date, plan your dinner… all removed from our personal arsenal and outsourced to tech. An exchange of agency for ease and efficacy.

Of course, our digital lives bring a phenomenal amount of potential, insight and joy to be elicited. That said, your average person doesn't view the black rectangle in their pocket as a vehicle travelling towards utopia. Take social media for example, something unquestionably entrenched in modern life. 2020 Pew data highlighted that 64% of Americans thought social media had a mostly negative effect on the country, compared to only 10% who thought it was mostly positive.

Our perspective has an impact on our outcomes too. One study of 1700 people found that those who identified themselves as using social media to maintain relationships were the loneliest of all respondents.

This notion of disconnection in the face of near-untrammelled access to basically everyone online is an interesting one. The topic of loneliness has percolated through the physical isolation of the pandemic and is splaying itself amongst 2024 adults to an alarming degree.

E-Meat On The Bones

There are a few things worth considering. The first is Dunbar’s Number – a theory coined back in 1992 – which refers to the number of relationships humans, supposedly, have the mental/emotional bandwidth to maintain: 150.

The rough number of 150 recurs throughout human history. “English villages were [on average made up of] 160 people, Roman Army units averaged “150 men and even modern Christmas card networks max out of 153 people.” The average number of Instagram followers for a personal account, too, is around 150. So perhaps Dunbar’s onto something.

It’s interesting to posit whether our online relationships, including the parasocial connections we form with influencers and creators who may never know we exist, are occupying some of our friend slots. If we spend more time engaging with content created by individuals we’ll never meet, perhaps this transfers vital social energy from our metaphoric capacity, leaving us less energised to make the effort with people we genuinely know.

Artificial Nourishment

There's more to this thought than presumption. The phenomena behind faux interactions scratching our carnal desire for community is known as ‘Social Snacking’. It refers to social media’s ability to scratch the social itch that we often feel. Yet, these micro-interactions by way of scrolling and tapping don’t serve us in the way that genuine social interactions do. A podcast, or reel, may offer the illusion of conversation, but when the one-way show finishes and you have no input, it creates a deficit in our relational resources that play a vital part in the human experience.

Research suggests it takes around 94 hours to turn an acquaintance into a casual friend. With so much of our time spent consuming content in one form or another, is it all that surprising that there's been a 20% reduction in the number of people who say they have 10 or more close friends, in the space of just 30 years?

One in & One Out

Just as our brains altered themselves to accommodate the advent of the written word, it will continue to do so as we repetitively force new behaviours and actions upon ourselves by way of the proliferation of tech. The incessant notifications on our phones overstimulate our brain's pleasure centres to the point of limiting responsiveness to ostensibly less engaging experiences like "reading a book, having a conversation or holding hands."

Simultaneously research has also found that this perpetual decision of spreading our attention thinly, focusing on whatever's shiniest like a featherless crow, "may contribute to diminished grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain where attentional control resides."

As we introduce, adapt to and embed new mediums – whether the printed page or the breadth of recorded history in our pocket – more and more of our neurons are recruited to the brain processes that power new behaviour. Studies have shown how we, understandably, recollect far worse when we expect information to be saved for us. Rather than remembering for ourselves, we use the internet as a “form of external… memory.

There's much talk of neuroplasticity as a means to grow and form new connections within our brains by way of new activities and information. The flip side of that coin is the deterioration of networks we use less or not at all.

The Path Of Least Resistance

We don’t *need* to go out to meet people. We don’t *need* to remember. But just because there’s no need doesn’t mean there’s no benefit.

Prophetic thinkers throughout the 20th century have mused on the dangers of overreliance on technology as a means to improve our well-being.

Literary luminaries a la Huxley, Bradbury & Eggers have laid it out through fiction.

Modern theorists from Postman (‘Amusing Ourselves To Death’, requires no explanation) to Gergen (‘The Saturated Self’, too many inputs confuse our self-identity) forewarned, prior to social media, the situation we’re sleepwalking into.

A cyborg is defined as someone whose abilities extend beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body. People are obsessing over brain chips, but that smartphone outline in your favourite pair of jeans shows we’re only a layer of skin away from that definition ringing true today.

The more we externalise effort to technology to forge the path of least resistance, the less that we ourselves are able to perform.

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