Smartphones and the proliferation of the internet have, unarguably, benefited people. The rapid transfer of complex information from one end of the planet to the other has accelerated the rate of innovation and invention, turbo-charged the global news cycle, and it has saved lives. Local problems and solutions, like at no other time in human history, have taken on the ability to become world problems and solutions. No aspect of human activity – politics, economics, science, or art – has not been touched and transformed in the past two decades with the advent of internet communications; not even the Great Firewall of China has been completely successful in keeping social media catalysed social change at bay. We are witnessing the revolutionary socio-psycho-techno evolution of everything, and this is happening in real time.
Except in the event of a worldwide electronics apocalypse, this cyber revolution, together with all the changes it has brought and will bring about, is here to stay. While we may know the odd person who has resisted the urge to begin using Facebook or Twitter (are these already passé?), everyone – at least in the developed world – benefits from the progress we all share, and we all suffer its consequences. Yes, it’s true, the technology of cyber communication has consequences; some benign and others serious – potentially devastating. Our ability to like and share information about the destruction of the planet, for example, is no indication of an increased will to do anything about it. In fact the evidence on internet use is already showing that the more time we spend online the less likely we are to be involved with activities geared towards affecting social or environmental change.
Studies pointing in this direction, however, are not determinative. Overexposure to the social isolation of the internet may bring about a reaction, and there are signs of such a reaction, but this is not what I see as the most serious threat posed by our increasing reliance on this technology. Information overload and an endless stream of nonsensical – but sometimes amusing – memes have changed the way that we think. It would be silly to suggest that the internet has stopped us thinking, but it certainly has changed the way that we think.
Our memory is now measured in bytes rather than in the amount we can actually remember. We can still remember the essentials, for sure, like how to eat and speak, but our ability to store relevant outside information has taken a hit. Of course all of this is somewhere online and can be accessed through a search engine quickly enough, but Google is incapable of stitching these elements of information together and critically thinking them through for us. As we can all now safely assume that there are persons unknown watching what we are doing in cyberspace, so too can we assume that our increasing dulling-down benefits such persons in society, government, and government agencies who don’t want us to be thinking too much. However much this technology is here to stay, so is our grey matter, and we must make sure to keep it thinking by itself.