Trading Our Brains for Pixels

Brief thoughts on how digital products are changing our minds, for better or for worse.

I hesitate to type an article that is over a page. Who sits still long enough to read anything over a few paragraphs in length anymore? In this era of 280-character tweets and blurb-like “What’s on Your Mind” updates from Facebook, writers alienate huge segments of potential readers by composing written works that are more than a few short sentences in length.

While digital products often provide numerous obvious benefits, it is my argument that many of the most used digital products are an overall detriment to society. We will examine this argument through three compelling claims extrapolated from a number of important scholarly works published in the last decade. First, from Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget I will show that the internet creates “flatness” in society. Second, using Nicholas Carr’s compelling essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” we will discover that the internet functionally replaces our memory. Lastly, Maggie Jackson will present us with evidence that digital products have the ability to replace the vital social relationships that make up a thriving society. 

In You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier makes a compelling argument that the structure of the internet, and the hive-mind culture that thrives there, creates an undesirable “flatness” in society. When human experience and thought is slowly reduced to the collective reality of Wikipedia and social media, and creativity suddenly freezes in time in order to rehash and remix “retro-cool” ideas, individuality and the synthesis of new art suddenly become something we observe at a distance instead of something we create. Lanier points out that almost all musical genres available today came into existence before the web (pg 135), and that the popularity of Wikipedia and social media have shaped our culture into a hive-mind were everyone shares the same viewpoints and realities. Lanier laments, “It was as if Wikipedia were the only searchable web page for a big slice of human thought and experience” (pg 146). The web, Lanier argues, has the potential to freeze our society into something that is terribly dull.        

Nicholas Carr adds compelling evidence to the claim that social media and digital products like Google have the potential for devastating societal effects. Humans have a historical knack for creating technologies that extend our physical senses. The camera extended our sense of sight, the telegraph extended our ability to communicate, and the railroad changed our sense of time and space. Carr argues that the internet is accomplishing the same thing for our memories, but instead of increasing or extending memory the Internet replaces it. What once was an arduous process with long-lasting results has become a brief exercise to find information as quickly and efficiently as possible. “What the (internet) seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the internet distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (paragraph 4). This concept has become a potent reality to me individually as I’ve made a habit of asking people in conversation how many supreme court justices they can name. The reactions I have received are freakishly identical: “I don’t know, I’ll just Google it.” 

Finally, Maggie Jackson shows how social media has the potential to replace social relationships with a techno-medicated sense of belonging. She recalls that E.B. White predicted this over eighty years ago when he wrote “Media will remake our world and insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and remote” (pg 66). Social media encourages us to favor the imaginary connections of the digital world over the tangible relationships right in front of us. Dinner conversations sparked by the thoughts of influential peers and the warmth of a bottle of wine (conversations that build strong social bonds), have been replaced with dull social interactions marked by separate individuals who are sitting at the same table but whose eyes are glued to their cell phones or tablets, or worse, who's only social bond has been weakly formed by "likes" and "shares."

Again, I think there are huge benefits to many digital products, including Twitter, Google, Wikipedia, etc. But I do often wonder if the benefits outweigh the overall negative effects these products, and the internet as a medium by which all digital products breath, are worth the cost. And I worry that we're all so used to this new world that none of us will be able to remember to know any better.