Why the march of digital technology may be the ultimate test of human adaptation

Ray Sylvester
May 10, 2018 · 18 min read
(Jacob Ufkes/Unsplash)

By Ray Sylvester

“The ability to consume content in 1997 was nothing, is nothing compared to what it is now. I suspect a part of the reason why we’re seeing more of it now is that we have higher-speed internet, we have greater accessibility, we have WiFi, which we did not have. We have smartphones, which we did not have. All of these technologies basically put a digital hypodermic needle in your pocket or in your pocketbook.”

— Dr. David Greenfield, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction

Technology.

The word has a broad etymological legacy. Today, though, it’s largely a stand-in for one thing:

Digital technology.

In parallel, the word “product” has increasingly come to mean something ineffable, a configuration of bits and bytes that interface with the physical world through electricity. Instead of substantive creations hewn from wood and steel, our products are now mostly digital stories that can be summoned from raw binary in the flash of an eye.

The Pew Research Institute reported in 2015 that 73 percent of Americans go online daily, 21 percent go online “almost constantly,” and only 13 percent of adults don’t use the internet at all. That was a little over two years ago, and chances are good that those numbers have continued to tilt in the same direction.

We’re awash in tech, and digital connection. But can we keep up with it?

The evidence suggests we’re not doing a great job. As a wealth of investigative articles have explored in recent months, one thing is clear: we’re intertwined with our tech, and increasingly subdued by it. There’s compelling evidence to suggest our tech is making us sadder, less connected, and more addicted. As the march of digital innovation makes things faster and more fantastical, our otherwise adaptable human minds, bodies, and relationships are simultaneously suffering.

Sadder

“Personal tech is depressing” — and that effect is especially significant among teens. Adolescents who spend a lot of time on their electronic devices are more likely to show signs of depression and suicidal thoughts. “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” asked Jean M. Twenge in the Atlantic in September 2017, pointing out that although today’s teens have more time on their hands, they are spending much of that free time “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.”*

Much of the angst around our reliance on tech centers on smartphones, those vortex hubs of ultra-distilled distraction — and rightly so. It turns out just having a phone around (even if it’s turned off) affects our ability to concentrate.

But to center our focus on just the smartphone itself would be woefully incomplete. There’s a web of wider factors at play here, all synergistically contributing to our troubling relationship with tech. The four demigods at whose feet we lay blame could be defined as follows: the increased availability of internet access, the explosion of smaller, more powerful devices that connect to the internet, the boom in “content” of all kinds, and the rise of software sophisticatedly tuned to take advantage of basic human impulses, short-circuit ancient patterns of social connection, and even mess with our experience of physical reality itself.

*(By the way, we do our youth a disservice through the false notion of “digital natives” who are “better at technology,” more “tech savvy,” better attuned to the rigors and requirements of the digital age — that they’re “wired differently.” They’re not. As dependent on and connected to technology as millennials are, they’re no better at tech than any other generation, and more stressed out by it.)

(Hal Gatewood/Unsplash)

Disconnected Connectivity

The current digital age represents a radical and unprecedented shift in the way humans communicate and interact, whether through social media like Twitter, Snapchat, or Facebook, email, or even video games, many of which are social worlds unto themselves.

It’s at the feet of this radical communicational shift that we lay much of the fault for how sad our tech is making us. In essence, our tech is pulling us apart.

According to health and human performance expert Frank Forencich, the “destructive effect on social relationship” is the most negative impact of how (and how much) we use our digital technologies.

The various forms of technology-mediated communication often provide more of a simulacrum of social interaction, a kind of disconnected connection that echoes through the various forms of personal engagement that occur via our devices and digital experiences. Even when we’re FaceTiming with a good friend — practically an old-school form of communication these days — the experience lacks the physicality of an in-person interaction.

Says Forencich, “Normal human communication,” on the other hand, “is a highly physical act.” Indeed, the field of neuroscience has shown just how much more than words is the phenomenon of human conversation. And so, says Forencich, “[b]y removing the body from the process, electronic devices strip away the very thing that we need to communicate completely with one another. Misunderstanding is inevitable, but that’s not the worst of it. It’s no coincidence that people are feeling increasingly isolated, anxious and depressed. Our bodies are craving genuine, face-to-face contact and conversation. Without this experience, we feel lost and alone.”

With social media, in particular, there is a powerful performative, approval-seeking element that makes it dangerous to our mental and emotional well-being. Says David Greenfield, “People are actually experiencing their lives through what I call reflective self-esteem. If they don’t post it and it’s not reviewed, it has no value . . . If everything you do doesn’t really fulfill you unless somebody else sees it or reviews it, then you’re not really living your life. You’re performing your life.”

Rise of the Camps

So our tech is making us sadder, and more disconnected from each other. But is it possible to be addicted to it?

In a word, yes.

Video games are a prime example of a digital experience that’s designed to be addictive — and the addictive nature of many games is accomplished in a few key ways: by facilitating skill building and social connection, and by delivering rewards in an unpredictable manner. None of those three factors is exclusive to game design, but the last one — the delivery of unpredictable rewards — may be underappreciated for its role in making nearly all of our tech experiences so hard to resist.

Says Greenfield, “The internet operates on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, meaning that any time you go online, whether it’s to a video game or just search something on Google or social media update, it doesn’t matter. Even email, texting, it’s irrelevant what the actual content is. You don’t know what you’re going to find, when you’re going to find it, and how good, salient, or desirable it’s going to be. That’s how a slot machine operates.”

The implications of Greenfield’s claim are frightening, if not outright dire: the bulk of our digital and online experience is being engineered to hook us.

Is it working? The body of evidence is substantial.

(Hugh Han/Unsplash)

David McCracken is a Chicago-based counselor and psychotherapist. He explains that an addiction to technology or internet use can be thought of as a “process addiction,” similar to gambling. “Just like substance addictions, [with process addictions] the reward system in the brain, specifically the midbrain dopamine pathway, is hijacked, in a way, by the substance or by the activity, whether it’s gambling or being on the internet. What happens is that that reward pathway becomes sensitized to the substance or to the activity, such that there’s a kind of craving and compulsion to engage in that sort of thing.”

In some places, the phenomenon of tech addiction has sublimated from theoretical threat to palpable problem, raising alarm bells and driving a response at a societal level — perhaps nowhere more starkly than China.

As far back as 2008, the Chinese government formally recognized “internet addiction disorder” (IAD), defined as staying online for more than six hours a day for purposes other than working or studying. Although IAD isn’t formally recognized elsewhere, its potential prevalence has been studied in a number of countries.

As for China, internet addiction has hit the country’s youth particularly hard, perhaps partly due to decades of a one-child policy that produced millions of lonely only-kids, as well as China’s sheer population numbers. According to a 2009 survey, an estimated twenty-four million people in China between the ages of fourteen and twenty-nine suffer from internet addiction.

As a result, China also leads the world in addiction treatment camps. In fact, these camps have become something of a cottage industry, with pretty serious quality-control concerns: while many camps employ humane techniques in an attempt to cure the kids’ addictions, a few camps have used brutal practices like electroshock therapy (a practice the Chinese government has vowed to phase out), while in others, teens have died from mistreatment.

In the 2014 documentary Web Junkie, filmmakers Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam probed the inner workings of a Chinese addiction clinic for teenagers. “We decided to go to China because China is where this phenomenon is in the extreme, but it’s also really a mirror to what’s happening in the world because this is a global phenomenon,” Medalia said in an online interview released with the documentary.

China may provide the highest-profile example of the internet addiction phenomenon, but it’s hardly the only place where this issue is occurring at a worryingly wide scale. In neighboring, hyperconnected South Korea, about 10 percent of teens are believed to be internet addicts.


Excerpt from Web Junkie (2014)

Xi Wang (“Hope”), 16: I want to talk to my dad.

Nurse: I’ll let him know.

Xi Wang: I don’t know why I’m here. Do you?

[Five-second pause. The nurse looks at Xi Wang, unsure.]

Nurse: How many nights have you been away from home? How bad is your communication with your parents?

Web Junkie (2014)

Xi Wang: I can’t even talk to my father. He works during the day and I go out at night. If only he would’ve told me, “Start sleeping at night or else I’m sending you to rehab. I would’ve talked to him.”

[Long pause.]

Xi Wang: I’m wasting my time here. I don’t need any treatment.

Nurse: Do you realize what kind of place you’re at now? It seems you have failed to perceive what reality is.

Xi Wang: What is reality?


Disembodied

Way back in 1999, Neil Gross wrote in BusinessWeek:

“In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations. This skin is already being stitched together. It consists of millions of embedded electronic measuring devices: thermostats, pressure gauges, pollution detectors, cameras, microphones, glucose sensors, EKGs, electroencephalographs. These will probe and monitor cities and endangered species, the atmosphere, our ships, highways and fleets of trucks, our conversations, our bodies–even our dreams.”

We’re all currently witnessing and experiencing a grand operation: the somatization of the internet — soma being the Latin term for the body, as distinct from the soul, mind, or psyche. Whether we like it or not, there’s a vast, ongoing hookup of networked intelligence to our physical infrastructure. Everything that can be measured, analyzed, and/or controlled by a computer, is being designed or reconfigured to do so.

There’s little left out there that’s not a computer.

As a result, the internet is being given more of a body, a greater physical reach. This physicality, once the domain of devices no smaller than clunky desktop computers, has come to inhabit tinier, faster, more powerful “bodies,” from lightweight laptops to feature-packed smartphones, FitBits, and millions of other minuscule connected devices that can fit and travel almost anywhere.

As computer security expert Bruce Schneier wrote for Vice in July 2016, “With the advent of the Internet of Things and cyber-physical systems in general, we’ve given the internet hands and feet: the ability to directly affect the physical world.” Schneir went on to explain that the computerization of our physical reality and the increased connectedness of our systems means an exponential escalation in the vulnerability of those systems.

“The next president will probably be forced to deal with a large-scale internet disaster that kills multiple people,” said Schneier in his June 2016 Vice piece.

(Let’s hope it’s up to the current next president, not the June 2016 version, to deal with that.)

The network is being granted a more robust physicality — at the same time ours is being abdicated. Our minds are being hacked, and so are our bodies. We accommodate our postures to sitting at a desk and typing, and our necks and thumbs to focus on a smartphone screen. We trade robust physicality for tech slouch, and worse.

If we’re not careful, things like “tech neck” and “BlackBerry thumb” (remember that?) will become just the leading edge of an integration, a giving over, of large portions of our selves — our consciousness and our physicality — to our devices. The problem is that this process of reshaping, of giving over, of pouring ourselves into the machine, is also one of depletion. It’s a lopsided exchange. Says Forencich, “Swinging an axe with skill and grace is a fantastic pleasure. In contrast, our electronic tools exile the body almost completely.”

There’s little left out there that’s not a computer.

Which brings us to virtual reality (VR). One of the promises of VR is that it may “bring the body back in,” but here the promise and danger are both acute.

To be fair, we’re still in the early stages of the VR era. This technology/industry has endured false starts for three decades, but we may finally be on the cusp of welcoming this technology into our lives on a permanent basis. At the same time, the kind of experience afforded by VR is entirely without precedent; are we ready for the coming waves of devices and ultra-immersive experiences that threaten to make the smartphone look like the cotton gin?

(Damien Walmsley/Flickr)

To the rosy-eyed, some emerging VR tech promises to imbue our interactive experiences with a more holistic and salutary physical element. Take ICAROS — a complex contraption you strap into in order to “feel what it’s like to fly” while also getting in a full-body workout. Or the VUE VR, which lets a user walk, run, jump, and crouch in place on a simulated treadmill to carry out those same actions in a virtual environment.

Could virtual reality be the bridge between our physicality and an increasingly technological reality? Might it help bring the body back from our digitally imposed exile? One study found an “interactive virtual reality bicycle experience on a computer while exercising on a stationary bike” to be potentially more mood-enhancing than either just bicycling on a stationary bike or playing a virtual reality computer bicycle game — which, more than anything, to this author’s mind, displays a distinct lack of imagination about where it’s possible to go and what it’s possible to experience on a bicycle.

As with so many new technologies, the potential benefits of VR in this and other areas — as a tool to enhance empathy, for example — tend to be overhyped and overstated.

Are we ready for the coming waves of devices and ultra-immersive experiences that threaten to make the smartphone look like the cotton gin?

Finally, VR’s immersive nature makes it as potent as any technology when it comes to its capacity to drive addictive behaviors. Says Forencich, “the possibility of widespread addiction” with VR “seems immense.” If our experience with internet addiction has been the canary in the coal mine of technology addiction, VR presents the perilous possibility that we’re sealing shut the entrance to that mine.

What Else We Lose

Depression. Addiction. Social and physical disconnection. What other costs do we pay by giving over ourselves to devices and simulations? What else do we forfeit at the expense of the nebulous “connection” provided by digital tech?

For one, as our lives become increasingly electrical, electronic, and wireless — especially with the explosion of WiFi and cellular networks based on the more powerful 4G and LTE (and the forthcoming 5G) standards, a growing body of research suggests that exposure to the electromagnetic fields (EMF) produced by these devices may pose health risks that are only starting to become apparent.

The hyper-availability of information may also be compromising our capacity for intelligent inquiry. As the authors of a 2011 research study that appeared in Science put it, “The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.” And our current quest for answers occurs mainly via one dominant engine of investigation — Google Search — a “black box” system that is biased, game-able, unaccountable, and simplistic, according to Ted Hunt, founder of else, an alternative search engine designed to “attempt to invert or subvert the most negative default characteristics of domestic web search engines.”

Less effable but still inescapable is the impact of low-latency, always-on connectivity on our capacity for creativity and “productive boredom.” The Germans have a saying, “die Seele baumeln lassen,” or “let the soul dangle.” Our tech-laden lives make it harder and harder to do that, but can we afford not to?

(Ashley Bean/Unsplash)

There’s an insidious socioeconomic aspect to the rise of tech that can’t be ignored, either. In a June 2017 article for the Pew Research Center, Lee Rainie and Janna Anderson examined the growing omnipresence of the internet of things as our educational, corporate, governmental, and personal products, systems, and services go online— and the growing difficulty in disconnecting.

With “connection” becoming the norm, the cost of disconnection will be felt more acutely by the less privileged. On the privilege of disconnection, Rainie and Anderson quoted Erik Johnston, an associate professor and director of the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University: “Trying to disconnect in the future will be increasingly difficult. Only those who are either very privileged or unprivileged will find themselves in a situation where the majority of their lives are not connected in a meaningful way. As the default becomes … to opt in (unless there is a sea change in regulation) it will be very costly and time consuming to disconnect from each phase of life.”

Rainie and Anderson also quoted Randy Albelda, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston: “At this point I see no way out. If I disconnect, I in effect lose my job and/or pay a lot more money and/or spend an enormous amount of time living my daily life. The toothpaste is out of the tube.”

In the same article, an anonymous researcher from an unnamed US university put it simply: “Privacy and liberty will become ever more the province of those with economic means.”

It Won’t Stop, But It Can Change

Amidst all this churn and change, some have asked the question, “Is the tech industry itself a ‘bubble’? The pursuit of “disruption” and “innovation” (or their bejeweled brethren, “disruptive innovation”) has mutated much of the tech industry into a insensitive, unself-aware beast that’s become disruptive and innovative in the wrong ways. Encyclopedias have been written on whether or not an industry-altering company like Uber even delivers a net social positive. Startups name themselves Bodega in a tone-deaf attempt to usurp mom-and-pop corner stores while paying hollow homage to them. The gold rush sparked by the explosion of the internet in the early 1990s has given way to a constant stream of startups panning their way to a fool’s gold haul. There’s an app for that, and if there’s isn’t yet, there will be soon — whether we need it or not.

But even if, by this description, the tech industry itself is a bubble right now — one with its collective head so far up its collective derriere that VCs will throw money at anything that looks like it might attract and retain enough users to scale, regardless of whether it’s in pursuit of real, constructive innovation . . . regardless of how many Bodegas come and go. . .

. . . tech isn’t going anywhere. Everything is going online, if it hasn’t already. Heck, that even includes our money; whether you believe cryptocurrency is a) a big scam, b) the death knell of fiat money, or c) something in between, it’s another tech-ward sea change that can’t be ignored.

The march of tech isn’t going to stop — but maybe it can be slowed.

On January 6, a group of Apple shareholders wrote a letter to the company’s board of directors, asking Apple to take more responsibility for the negative effects of their technology on young people. The concerned parties, JANA Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, at the time collectively owned approximately $2 billion of Apple stock.

Greenfield sees the letter as a positive signal of wider awareness of the dangers of continuing to embrace our runaway tech-use patterns. “If you have a $2 billion investor asking Apple to take responsibility for the addictive nature of their technology,” he says, “that’s an indication that society is now starting to backlash.”

Tech’s insiders aren’t sitting still, either. In October 2017, the Guardian published a piece about “the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia.” This cadre included ex-Google employees Tristan Harris and Justin Rosenstein (creator of Facebook’s like button and one of the creators of GChat), and ex-Twitter coder Loren Brichter, who devised the slot-machine-like “pull to refresh” feature widely used in mobile apps. Harris and Rosenstein are members of a team that’s behind the Center for Humane Technology, an alliance of former employees of tech giants like Google and Facebook that’s trying to inject conscientiousness into the inner workings of the largest factories of tech.

Outside the tech industry, others are making their own stands against the onslaught of tech overload. The “slow tech” movement is attempting to “curb some of the damaging effects of excessive technologies in human life, primarily through promoting slower or less extreme interactions with certain technologies,” and it branches into “slow tech parenting,” which aims to “[bridge] conscious living and authenticity with technology and family values.” Not to be outdone, the “Slow Web” movement also embodies similar ideals.

While most countries have yet to formally recognize IAD or to institute addiction treatment programs at a large scale, organizations and institutions like reSTART, the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, and the International Centre for Tech Addiction offer support and guidance to victims of internet and tech addiction. Hack Reality is a consortium of software developers, neuroscientists, game designers, and psychologists aligned around building emerging tech that isn’t addictive. And others are having important conversations about bringing compassion and caution into the unfolding VR era.

The march of tech isn’t going to stop — but maybe it can be slowed.

There’s also the unexpected return of an earlier, arguably less addictive era of portable telephones. Last June, Nokia rebooted the sturdy 3310, one of the most popular phones of the pre-smart era. Meanwhile, the Light Phone (and its successor, the Light Phone II) is one company’s attempt to use technology to circumvent technology, by creating a stripped-down phone (calls only!) that pairs with your feature-rich smartphone, so you can leave the latter at home when you don’t want to be tempted by the honeypot.

Meanwhile, free tracking apps like Moment and Offtime let almost anyone take baby steps to unglue themselves from their smartphones.

According to Frank Forencich, shedding the yoke of tech also mandates a return to our roots — evolutionarily, and even just in terms of our recent modern history. This includes reinvesting our time and energy in practices like farming, fishing, and hunting, and making more use of “‘physical technologies’ that our bodies and our spirits really enjoy,” ones that “give us huge advantages in getting work done, but . . . still keep the body in the game.”

“Sometimes I think that the only real answer for all our modern ills is backpacking with small groups,” says Forencich. “It has all the upsides: physical engagement in outdoor environments, group cohesion in a shared predicament, natural light and simple food. So put down the device, lace up your boots and go.”

Up the Hill

In 2011, Ulrich Weger, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Kent, told the Guardian: “The upside of these devices is that you don’t have to go home to get the information you need. But the downside is that if you allow yourself to become dependent, they will haunt you. As with all things: if you can make use of something that makes your life easier while maintaining enough inner strength and freedom to avoid dependence, you are the master. If you do not cultivate this inner strength and freedom, you become the slave.”

In 2018, given the course and pace of technological development, and our entrainment with it, Weger’s words seem almost quaint.

According to David McCracken, how to not become the slave is “kind of the $64,000 question. In a culture that’s sort of awash in media and internet diversions, how do you keep your distance or just manage that sort of thing? It’s difficult.”

David Greenfield believes it comes down to one central challenge: “Own your brain — that’s our mantra — because if you don’t own it and don’t take control over it, the technology will inadvertently control you.”

But, as with many things, this process of self-ownership — because it is a process, a hardscrabble one that must be pursued constantly against an uphill gradient — will be navigated most successfully by the privileged, the people with the time and resources to extricate themselves from the more humanity-depleting elements of our encroaching technological reality.

Hyperlink Magazine

Hyperlink explores the nexus of media, technology, commerce, and culture. It's a magazine for brands looking to create authentic bonds with loyal fans, and for consumers who think critically about where, why, and how they spend their money and their attention.

Ray Sylvester

Written by

Writer/editor, Hyperlink Magazine (https://medium.com/hyperlink-mag/) & Winning Edits. Brown grad, movement aficionado, ancestral health fan, third culture kid.

Hyperlink Magazine

Hyperlink explores the nexus of media, technology, commerce, and culture. It's a magazine for brands looking to create authentic bonds with loyal fans, and for consumers who think critically about where, why, and how they spend their money and their attention.

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