What is the role of villains in films, novels, or plays? Basically, they are there to create trouble in the life of heroes. Similar to these fictional characters, we are having real-life villains of the digital world in our life. They are creating hindrances for us in various important aspects of life. Knowingly or unknowingly we are affected by them.
We are going to learn about these four villains of our age: digital deluge, digital distraction, digital dementia, and digital deduction. They started out innocent—they are being fed by some of the greatest advancements that humankind has made in the last hundred years. They were given rise by technology. It allows us to do everything from connecting to learning and making our lives much more convenient. Much of the technology available to us today is so new that we don’t know the level at which we need to control our interaction with it.
It’s important to note that overload, distraction, forgetfulness, and default thinking have been around for ages. While technology doesn’t cause these conditions, it has great potential to amplify them. The benefits of the digital age are plentiful, but at the same time, it can possibly hinder you.
“The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10 thousand other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe.” – Michio Kaku
Do you have too much to process but not enough time? We’re privileged to live in a world with so much unrestricted access to information. In this age of connectivity, ignorance is a choice. Compared to the 15th century, we now consume as much data in a single day as an average person from the 1400s would have absorbed in an entire lifetime. Not so long ago, information moved glacially through word of mouth, or a newspaper, or a posted bulletin. Now we have so much access to information that it’s taking a toll on our time and our quality of life. The average person consumes three times as much information as we did in the 1960s; a 2015 report indicated that respondents spent eight hours a day consuming media.
In an NPR interview, New York Times tech reporter Matt Richtel said that after 20 years of glorifying technology as if all of it were good, “I think science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies and some technology is Brussels sprouts. If we consume too much technology, just like if we consume too much food, it can have ill effects.”
We also have to contend with the fact that the half-life of information has decreased. The half-life of information is the amount of time that passes before that information is replaced by newer or more accurate information. You can study to your heart’s content; the information you process now will be outdated sooner than you think. “Facts” written in articles, books, and documentaries are based on strong evidence and accepted as truth. But then they are completely reversed when a new study comes out.
Before mobile devices, we would say “brb” (be right back) all the time when we were online. We don’t say it anymore. We no longer leave. And we live here now. Because of our always-on, ever-connected devices, we’re struggling to find connections when we’re with friends and family, and we’re struggling to stay focused at work. Most of us deal with some kind of work-life situation where we don’t feel comfortable missing digital connection for large swaths of time every day. So we stay on the grid out of the fear that if we were unreachable, we would lose out.
The trouble is, we’re wired to enjoy it. Each successive hit of dopamine we get from the likes we receive on social media, or from the texts we get from loved ones or friends, only reinforces our behavior. But those rewards are changing our brains. Instead of relaxing into the downtime that we might experience when waiting in line, waiting for a bus or an appointment, etc., we pull out our phones and train our distraction muscles. What happens when this is our constant way of being, when every loose moment is filled with shining stimulus?
Staying connected may make us feel more secure, but it doesn’t make us happier. Ryan Dwyer, MA, of the University of British Columbia, led a study that showed how our digital habits are affecting our relationships. In one experiment, more than 300 adults and university students were asked to keep their phones on the table, easily accessible, while others were asked to put them on silent and keep them in a container on the table during a meal. Afterward, participants were asked to respond to a questionnaire that asked them about their feelings of connectedness, enjoyment, distraction, and boredom.
The survey also asked them to detail the amount of time they spent on their phone during the meal. Those whose phones were accessible used them more often . . . and they described themselves as feeling more distracted. They also enjoyed the dinner less than the diners who didn’t have access to their phones. “Modern technology may be wonderful, but it can easily sidetrack us and take away from the special moments we have with friends and family in person,” Dwyer says of the study.
When is the last time you had to remember someone’s phone number? Can you still remember some of your best friends’ numbers from childhood? What about the number of the person you talk or text with every day? You no longer have to, because your mobile remembers it for you. This is not to say anyone wants to or should memorize 200 phone numbers, but we’ve all but lost the ability to remember a new one, or a conversation we just had, the name of a new potential client, or something important we need to do.
Neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer uses the term digital dementia to describe how the overuse of digital technology results in the breakdown of cognitive abilities. He argues that short-term memory pathways will start to deteriorate from underuse if we overuse technology. It’s the same with GPS. Move to a new city and see how quickly you become reliant on GPS to tell you how to get around. Then notice how long it takes you to map new roads in your mind—probably much longer than when you were younger, but not because your brain isn’t working as well. With tools like GPS, we don’t give our minds the chance to work. We rely on technology to do the memorization for us.
This reliance may be hurting our long-term memory. Maria Wimber of the University of Birmingham told the BBC that the trend of looking up information prevents the build-up of long-term memories. In a study that examined the memory habits of 6,000 adults in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, Wimber and her team found that more than a third of respondents turned to their computer first to retrieve information. The UK came in the highest—more than half of the participants searched online first without trying to come up with the answer themselves.
Why is this a big deal? Because such instant information can be easily and immediately forgotten. “Our brain appears to strengthen a memory each time we recall it, and at the same time forget irrelevant memories that are distracting us,” said Dr. Wimber. Forcing yourself to recall information instead of relying on an outside source to supply it for you is a way of creating and strengthening a permanent memory.
Too often, we outsource our brains to our smart devices. These smart devices are making us a little bit stupid. Our brains are the ultimate adaptation machines, capable of seemingly endless levels of evolution. And yet we often forget to give it the exercise it needs. Just as there is a physical price to always relying on the technology of the elevator instead of taking the stairs, so is there a price for lazy mental muscles. Use it or lose it.
“In a digital-first world, where millennials obtain all their answers to problems at the click of a mouse or swipe of a finger, the reliance on technology to solve every question confuses people’s perception of their own knowledge and intelligence. And that reliance may well lead to overconfidence and poor decision-making,” says Rony Zarom, founder of the video collaboration platform newrow. The ubiquity of information about everything also means that there’s a ubiquity of opinion about everything. If you want to know how to feel about a hot-button issue, you can just go online and collate the opinions of others. The upshot is that deduction—an amalgam of critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity that is an essential skill for being limitless—is becoming automated.
Patricia Marks Greenfield, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA, has been looking at this issue for more than a decade. In discussing the impact on education, she wrote, “What is the effect on learning if college students use their laptops to access the Internet during a classroom lecture? This was tested in a communication studies class where students were generally encouraged to use their laptops during lectures, in order to explore lecture topics in greater detail on the Internet and in library databases. Half of the students were allowed to keep their laptops open, while the other half (randomly assigned) had to close their laptops. Students in the closed laptop condition recalled significantly more material in a surprise quiz after class than did students in the open laptop condition.” Because they were engaging their minds in the lecture rather than looking for what the Internet already thought about the subject, they were much more responsive when it was time to reason for themselves.
Few of us have learned how to learn, not many know how to process and filter the massive amount of information we are constantly seeing. We love the light side of technology—how it can connect us, educate us, and empower us, make our lives easier. But it also has the above potential drawbacks, which may distract us from various important aspects of life. Like fire, technology has changed the course of human history. However, fire can cook your food or burn your home down—it’s all in how you use it. Like any tool, technology itself isn’t good or bad, but we must consciously control how it’s used. (Excerpt is from “Limitless: Upgrade Your Brain, Learn Anything Faster, and Unlock Your Exceptional Life” by Jim Kwik)