When the weather is cooperative, I eat breakfast on the porch in front of my apartment. My nervous system is soothed in the presence of squirrels scampering, hummingbirds zipping around my neighbor’s pear tree, and bumblebees bobbing on jasmine blossoms, heavy with pollen. From my perch, I exchange greetings with neighbors as they garden, walk dogs, and push strollers down the street. This time is precious because I make sure it happens before I’ve plugged in to the digital realm. I forestall that moment as long as I can, because the instant I call up the internet, my energy shifts, my effortless calm evaporates, and I am hooked into a world that, for all its many benefits, is designed to manipulate and addict me.
You don’t need me to sound the alarm about your relationship with digital devices. Like the rest of us, you were seduced down the rabbit hole of perpetual connection before you knew it was a bottomless pit. Now you’re used to it. It’s comfy. And all your friends are here. But you’re uneasy, because part of you knows you’ve cut a deal with the devil. This is the nature of addiction. In exchange for a benefit — relaxation, pleasure, stimulation, instant access — we give up some measure of control over our lives. The fact of addiction is indisputable. Less obvious are the long-term neurological consequences of our addictive behavior.
Distraction Industrial Complex Co-opts Evolution
Let’s start by admitting that the odds are stacked against our autonomy. Silicon Valley is teeming with very smart players whose job it is to compel us to keep clicking wherever and whenever they want us to click. By capitalizing on our innate curiosity, and playing on our vulnerability to distraction, the technology poses an existential threat to undivided attention.
From the perspective of evolution, survival depended upon our being aware of dangers in the environment. You had better be quickly distracted from the feast when a lion was circling the encampment or that was the end of the line for your genes. The alert lived on to nurture the insatiable curiosity that led us, discovery by discovery, to shape the world to our desires. Thus wired for distractibility and curiosity, we find ourselves jumping at every text message “in case it’s something important,” and yielding to the impulse to search out “whatever happened to so-and-so?” instead of finishing that assignment. So compelled are we by vivid kinetic triggers that only with great effort can we drag ourselves away long enough to engage either the steady uninterrupted focus required of abstract thinking, or the undirected state of daydreaming, the incubator of creativity.
The Triple Threat of Stimulation, Distraction, and Speed
The most pernicious effect of constant connectivity is that, ultimately, what we become addicted to is stimulation itself. We love stimulation; our brains reward us for seeking it out. We get a hit of dopamine every time someone likes one of our Facebook posts or swipes right. When pleasure can be had without effort and seemingly at no cost, there is no incentive to ration it. So we keep trying to generate that neurochemical rush even when we should be working on a task, tending to loved ones, or getting some sleep. We self-stimulate at the expense of the rest of our lives.
Every time we feed those pleasure pathways a digital bonbon, we reinforce the toxic by-product of stimulation: distraction. The scourge of modern life, distraction is the mortal enemy of attention. As we react to texts, beeps, notifications, pings, tweets, and IMs, we are systematically training ourselves out of the ability to pause, calmly reflect upon, and then respond to life as it unfolds. How can we benefit from the original insights that arise in periods of sustained, focused attention — how will they even bubble up if we are perpetually distracted?
The speed imperative is the third driver of dysfunction. The faster we can go, the faster we must go, if we are to keep up with our peers, and certainly our competitors. The perceived need to respond instantaneously when work, family, or friends call accelerates the pace of life, leaving us too busy, scattered, hurried and harried to deal — from the fullness of our intelligence — with whatever arises. Which sets us up to trip and fall, miss social cues, run a red light, send an ill-advised email, and generally make poor choices from an increasingly reactive and impulse driven mindset.
Nervous System Under Siege
The more we indulge in digital stimulation the more our lives are dominated by the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). Not duking it out, but on alert and ready to pounce on every new morsel of information. There is a time and a place for hyper-vigilance (think: ingenue meeting a movie producer in a hotel bar), but spending most of your waking hours there is a recipe for stress related illnesses in the long term, from diabetes to Alzheimer’s. Day to day it means elevated cortisol, increased blood pressure, anxiety—and diminished mental performance.
If you’re in the market for intractable diseases, cortisol pairs well with all the dopamine you’re running; excess reliance on the reward neurotransmitter dampens the prefrontal cortex, which is your executive function. Say goodbye to self-control—and with it any hope of keeping your health-degrading habits in check. To maintain physical and psychological well-being we need to spend ample time in the parasympathetic (rest and digest) mode, free of digital stimulation and distraction. Without adequate downtime we can neither fully integrate and learn from life’s experiences nor recover from its shocks.
Framing is crucial for understanding. So let us name, with precision, what we are doing to our bodies. We all know that “stress is bad.” We know that screen abuse is one of the primary sources of stress. Yet the word, like the state itself, has become normalized. Like the proverbial frog in a pot of water that’s slowly coming to a boil, we seem resigned to this fate. But what if instead of casually dismissing how “all these texts are stressing me out,” we acknowledged that “trying to respond to an endless barrage of texts is decreasing the strength and resilience of my nervous system and increasing my vulnerability to countless chronic diseases”? That might inspire us to hop out of the cauldron before we are cooked through and through.
Outsourcing Knowledge of Your Own Body
When we consistently ignore or override our physical selves, we fall out of relationship with the body. Stop paying attention for long enough and you will need an app to tell you what your body has been saying all along if only you were listening.
As children, our parents regulated us, telling us when to eat, sleep, go potty, and take a timeout. That’s how we learned to self-regulate. With the ascension of digital culture we’ve begun to regress. Instead of taking responsibility for knowing our bodies, we’ve found (what we tell ourselves is) an adult way to externalize self-regulation — the tech workaround. We depend on a device tell us when to take a break, if our heart rate is too high, if we’ve taken (what the app deems are) enough steps. I recently learned of an app that tells a woman what sort of symptoms to expect at different times in her menstrual cycle. At 62, I am of a generation that figured this out for ourselves. It wasn’t rocket science, you just noticed patterns over time—if you tuned in.
Divining the natural rhythms of one’s body is a kind of problem solving. When we suddenly grasp how disparate pieces cohere into a pattern, we experience the thrill of new comprehension — a sensation triggered by the brain’s release of natural opiates. This biochemical reward system is evolution’s way of encouraging us to make novel connections—through a self-generating path to pleasure. Use it or lose it to whoever or whatever is designing algorithms. By outsourcing our relationship with the body we sacrifice not only self-knowledge but the delight that attends its discovery.
We humans are pattern seekers and pattern trackers — and from patterns we derive meaning. If we can’t track patterns in our own bodies, how well will we identify them in the culture at large? And if we don’t accurately track sociopolitical trends and events, we will be increasingly susceptible to those who manipulate us for profit or political gain, the purveyors of fake news.
Behavioral Changes Lead to Cognitive Limitations
Here’s an emerging pattern that’s worth watching. The rate of nearsightedness has skyrocketed in recent years, especially among the young. This phenomenon is attributed to our having traded time in the great outdoors for endless hours staring at the pixelated void. To maintain healthy eyes we need to be gazing into the distance regularly, throughout the day. Evolution rewards those who can see the forest and the trees — and the brushfire heading towards you from two valleys away.
But who needs distance vision when you’ve got an app that will alert you to fires, tornadoes and floods? Even if technology never failed (dream on!), it behooves us to practice looking up, and looking around, at our environment that we may know our place in it and relationship to it.
What we see on screens is a representation of truth, never the truth itself. By spending the majority of our time peering into the digital abyss, we strain both our literal and our metaphoric capacity for vision, for seeing life in all its interconnected complexity.
Vision is not all we’re losing in our mad scramble to adapt to computerized life. The advent of GPS means we no longer need maps. Among digital natives, many are not only unable to read maps, they cannot orient themselves in space without phone support, a loss of geographic literacy. Studies suggest that excessive reliance on GPS may lead to atrophy in the hippocampus (necessary for consolidating short-term into long-term memory), putting a person at higher risk for cognitive diseases later in life. Between malfunctioning memory and shortened attention span we may all be courting early dementia.
You Don’t Know What You’ve Lost if You Never Got it in the First Place
The Guugu Yimithirr people of northern Australia are always aware which of the cardinal directions they are facing— even when tested in unfamiliar territory, blindfolded. Their bodies know which way is North, having been taught from infancy how to so orient. It becomes a sort of sixth sense. But like all of our senses it needs to be primed early in life. An infant deprived of light for long enough will never be able to see properly — if at all — because the visual cortex in the brain fails to develop in the absence of visual input. Similarly, if you’ve reached adulthood without knowing geographic orientation it’s probably too late to learn.
It’s not unreasonable to infer that all humans had this knowledge millennia ago, but with steady advances in technology — the map, compass, sextant, app — it was no longer essential, and withered away like a prehensile tail. Though human progress has continued at a blistering pace regardless, one wonders how many latent senses we can lose before we become senseless. Will we be the human equivalent of moles? Having adapted to life underground, they can barely see above it — no colors, just light and dark. What will we look like, what will we no longer be capable of, after many generations hunched and squinting, avoiding nature, and relying on digital interfaces to interpret life, instead of our direct experience of it?
There are short-term repercussions, too. If you can’t read maps, your ability to navigate even familiar territory is hobbled, dependent not only on outsourced memory (Siri, how do I get to the store?) but on outsourced knowledge as well (what is North?) When our environment becomes terra incognita, we will lose fluency in the language of metaphor, the fertile relationship between imagination and the rest of creation, for metaphors are born of physical reality. Or will metaphor itself be on the chopping block?
Failing the Marshmallow Test
Without metaphor humanity can probably survive, treading water in the shallows. Without willpower we will surely drown. Knowing that, we’d do well to consider the implications of The Marshmallow Test. The Stanford-based study begun in the 1960s showed how much better a person fared in life if as a child they resisted an immediate temptation in order to get a bigger reward later. Superior health and educational outcomes, higher incomes, stable relationships, and fewer problems with drugs all accrued to those who restrained impulse long enough to earn a second marshmallow. Later research showed that strategies for resisting temptation could be taught to children for whom it didn’t come naturally, so that they too could enjoy the long-term benefits of self-control.
Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of psychological maturity is the ability to delay gratification. And yet humans in the digital age spend most of our waking lives doing precisely the opposite — liking, linking, posting, sending, texting, sexting — and exhibiting all the discipline of lab rats with an inexhaustible supply of cocaine. By training our brains to jump at every digital prompt instead of exercising the neural musculature dedicated to self-restraint, we are failing the Marshmallow Test.
The ramifications of this failure are profound and far-reaching. If we can’t say no to another episode of Game of Thrones how much strength will we have to resist temptations of far greater consequence?
The United States is currently in the throes of an opioid epidemic that’s killing more of us than did AIDS at its peak. The reasons for this are many — the demise of good paying jobs, inadequate resources for the treatment of chronic pain and addiction, the gutting of our healthcare system, and the greed and deceit of Big Pharma have all played a role. Still, no matter what external forces challenge us, we have (or used to have) internal resources to keep us steady. But as we spend ever more time exhausting—or not even bothering to engage—our willpower, it may not be there when our future depends on making the difficult choice.
During my formative years there was a common expression that came up during weighty conversations, one I rarely hear anymore. Somebody would offer an insight or explain a nuanced position and advise the listener to “let that sink in.” Suggesting that one ought to pause and take some time to absorb what had been said. Pausing and absorbing seems to be a thing of the past. Why cultivate measured thoughtfulness when we can read a few comments, instantly form an opinion, and just as instantly share it with the rest of the planet? To appreciate what a human (over the age of 2) with scant impulse control is capable of, look no further than the Oval Office. Do we really want to engineer more people who eschew reflection and deliberation in favor of acting on their ill-informed gut? People who can’t read briefings much less books? People who rely on others to distill life-and-death decisions down to a few bullet points?
Let that sink in.
Will A Deficit of Attention Morph into Attention Deficit Disorder?
Even those with an intact moral compass are not immune to the malign influence of tech. With the normalization of computer-mediated life has come a corresponding increase in rates of ADHD, especially among children (more than 1 in 10 now suffer). Restlessness, impulsivity, aggression, difficulty concentrating—all these hallmarks of ADHD are exacerbated, if not caused by, internet use. Among some health professionals this phenomenon is known as Electronic Screen Syndrome: Interacting with screen devices causes children to become over-stimulated and, in time, dysregulated (unable “to modulate one’s mood, attention, or level of arousal in a manner appropriate to one’s environment.”) I would add that continuing to engage in behavior that caused your chronic dysregulation is another name for addiction. Wisely, practitioners are treating ESS children with electronic fasts instead of drugs.
Forced withdrawal to derail addiction? No surprise there. What did get my attention is a Swedish study showing that therapy for ADHD adults — when administered online — actually reduced their symptoms. Maybe the poison is the remedy: we inadvertently create ADHD people and then “cure” them with yet more technology. Might we be evolving into a species that is better adapted to digital life than analog life, people who don’t need to get out of chairs, smell pine forests, gaze at sunsets, and revel in the sensation of warm sand between their toes? Perhaps they are the future and old-school humans are a cardboard box of 8-track cassettes.
I Can’t Get No Satisfaction
Not long after the Blackberry supercharged human communication, early adopters got hooked so fast that it was laughingly dubbed the Crackberry. I don’t know how many people who joked about this phenomenon actually smoked crack, but I did. I was strung out on the stuff in the late 70s, when it debuted as cocaine freebase. And though those neural pathways have been dormant in me for 35 years, the memories remain. So when you see someone hunched over his iPhone oblivious to the cars whizzing past him in an intersection, I see a crackhead staring at the pipe as it makes its way around a circle of twitching fiends. I can assure you, from hard-won experience, the dynamic is the same. Addiction is addiction is addiction. Some addictive behaviors are criminalized, others valorized for transporting us to the brave new world of digital nirvana.
Ironically, the crackhead has one advantage the tech addict does not; unless you’re a one-percenter, any given debauch will come to an end. You will eventually run out of crack. And then, perchance, to sleep. Internet junkies have no built-in limits for we will never exhaust our supply of hilarious, infuriating, and heart-warming YouTube videos. But instant gratification—via drugs or clicks— can be nothing more than momentarily gratifying: It merely holds open the door to more want. By feeding the hedonic beast, we deny sustenance to the neurons that generate pleasure from within. We collude in our own diminishment, hastening our degeneration into creatures who can no longer achieve satiety without a digital crutch, if we can achieve it at all.
When pleasure is a scarce resource you are incentivized to make the most of every pleasurable experience, to make it last, to savor. Why bother to savor when the supply of everything yummy—from Cheetos to Facebook dwellers who’ll tell you you’re fabulous—is endless?
The Way It Was
Fifty years ago when you went out to the movies, it was an event, albeit a modest one. You’d probably been looking forward to it all week. You went with friends or your significant other, which made it more special. You settled in with popcorn and soda, watched the movie and, if was a good one, you felt satisfied, with the experience, with the whole evening. You headed home and went to bed happy. You didn’t feel the need much less the compulsion to watch another movie; if you did it would require extra effort and inconvenience. You could go to another theater and pay another $2. Or wait until you got home and see if anything of interest was playing on one of the three television channels available to you. And if there was, you’d have to endure a battery of commercials every 10 to 20 minutes. For most of us back in the day, it wasn’t worth the effort after we just had a good night out.
Now, of course, all bets are off. We can watch critically acclaimed movies and TV series around the clock without leaving home, all for the price of an Amazon prime subscription. When we binge watch, we don’t give ourselves a chance to achieve satiety. Instead we re-stimulate again and again with the next gripping episode, to the point of numbness or exhaustion. We can’t bear for the high to end. Which is exactly what the dealer — in this case the entertainment industry — wants. In a capitalist economy the highest priority, the Godhead, is profit. The more you consume the more you fatten the corporate bottom line. Just like tech, today’s great television is designed not to slake your thirst but to arouse your appetite for more. (Hence the age of the completely ludicrous cliffhanger.)
One of the best movies I’ve seen in recent years is Brokeback Mountain. It stayed with me for days, reverberating at ever deeper levels— as if it was exploding inside me. It succeeds emotionally, aesthetically, and as cultural critique. We have to allow both time and space to integrate great art and original thinking if they are to become a part of us. I can’t imagine having the profundity of response to that movie if I had immediately gone home and started bingeing on Desperate Housewives. It would have been like scarfing down a Big Mac after dining at Chez Panisse.
We need to rest into a place, idea, or relationship, to fully appreciate and understand it. Because we are glutted with options, the temptation to consume is literally ever-present; in every waking moment we are either succumbing to, or resisting, the lure of the glowing screen. Without mental free time built into our lives, resting into satiety has devolved into a practice that must be cultivated with intention and no small amount of discipline. It used to come naturally.
Imagine yourself as a 19th century homesteader on the Great Plains. A life of mostly toil, tending crops and livestock. There would be intermittent action — tornadoes, ice storms, fending off the people whose land you stole. Other than that, not much in the way of distraction. You had to be able to while away the hours watching wheat grow, to find satisfaction doing “nothing.” Today, the closest we come to doing nothing is meditation. Which we have to learn. And practice. In a class. After which we hop back on the hamster wheel of digital samsara.
And so continues our endless cycle of self-stimulation. Indeed, there is a masturbatory quality to the way we stroke our neural pathways without respite. And yet for all that stroking, in some sense, we never come. Racing from peak to peak, we skip right over the resolution phase of pleasure. We never get to luxuriate in the afterglow.
Earned Satisfaction: The Serotonin Connection
We can experience satisfaction in response to something we’ve achieved — completing a project, helping someone in need, acing a test. Or we can take a shortcut to a facsimile of satisfaction by simply clicking on something that (we hope) will deliver our desired result. (Chances are it won’t, but it turns out that intermittent reward is even more compelling than getting what you want every time.) The click—like the drink, snort and shot—gives you a short-lived dopamine rush of pleasure. By contrast, when you engage in deeply satisfying work your brain releases serotonin, which produces a feeling of accomplishment and a generalized sense of well-being. Aristotle called it eudemonia, “happiness as the result of an active life governed by reason.” The more we replace earned satisfaction with the instant pleasure of the digitally stimulated variety, the less likely we are to attempt the former because it requires actual effort. If you don’t have to work for your dopamine, why bother?
As with substance addictions, we build tolerance, and eventually digital hits just don’t generate the same oomph. Now we’re doing it just because it’s what we’ve programmed ourselves to do; it’s our brain’s go-to response to the merest hint of discomfort (which now includes—horror!—boredom). This is the stage where a drug addict realizes: I’m no longer getting high; I just need a fix to stop suffering.
At that point, best-case scenario, she chooses to quit using. But the dope fiend does not need heroin or OxyContin to bank and shop and date and communicate with her legions of followers. The digital addict does not have the luxury of going cold turkey… if she wants to continue functioning in in the 21st Century. Much like the foodaholic who must learn how to eat soberly, so it is incumbent upon all of us to cultivate a healthy relationship with technology.
Learning to Live with the Beast
When I quit hard drugs I immediately filled the void with sugar. After years of 12-step groups and self-directed recovery, I managed to free myself from death by hot fudge sundae. I learned how to have a relationship with food that is nourishing, not toxic. Today I use techniques honed in the Food Wars to make sure that I’m controlling my technology not the other way around. I regulate certain types of media (Facebook no more than 30 minutes a day; movies/TV on Saturday nights only); abstain from some behaviors altogether (watching TV alone); restrict the frequency of consumption (check email three or fewer times a day); and enjoy weekly fasts to calm my nervous system and untether my mind (digital-free Sundays). This accommodation with tech is my version of what the Buddha called The Middle Way of moderation. I share his belief that life lived “between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification” is the path to wisdom.
I always chafe at limits when I first impose them. But when I engage my will in the service of my highest good, I push past the initial anxiety and before long I’ve created a new neural pathway. I am no longer in resistance, I am in flow. Limits that once felt restricting now feel liberating. Because I am no longer frittering my life away chasing ephemeral online “rewards,” I’m free to devote more of my precious time to creating work that matters to me, and I hope to others.
Everyone is stunned to learn that—in 2018—I do not have a smart phone and have never sent a text message. I abide in this parallel universe not because I am a Luddite, or anti-technology. I have a desktop computer and maintain three websites and a presence on social media. I’m grateful for all the tools that the digital revolution has afforded me. But nothing comes without a cost. And I could see, with the advent of smart phones, that the price of admission to that club was, for me, just too high.
Millennials may find this hard to believe but it is possible to live a full, rich, connected life with friends, family and colleagues, and immensely satisfying creative work without having a smart phone. I write and publish, make art and sing, swim with a team, hike with friends, perform at open mics, share phone-free meals with my family, enjoy long, leisurely chats with far-flung loved ones on, yes, my landline, and even engage in political threads on Facebook. Though well served by this approach, I know that before long it may prove impossible for me to navigate modernity without a smart phone, as it already is for most Americans. At which point I will relent and do my best to be a Middle Way phone user. But for now, I don’t need one, and I am the freer for it.
The Limits of “Intelligence” (Artificial or otherwise)
The Holy Grail of tech is Artificial Intelligence. Computers, we are told, process information so much better and faster than humans they will soon be smarter than their creators. Maybe in terms of raw data crunching. Even if true, when it comes to human behavior, intelligence will only get you so far. Think of how often your actions belie your intellect, when you do what shouldn’t (eat that second helping), or avoid what you should (go to the gym.) And those are conscious decisions.
Consider Sally Rooney, a woman who is smart enough to write for the New Yorker, but so busy and so disconnected from her body that she doesn’t get thirsty, or “wasn’t sure what thirst felt like.” She has multiple blackouts and falls — even sustains a broken nose—as a result of dehydration-induced low blood pressure. (It takes a team of doctors and months of diagnostic procedures to figure this out.) Her solution, and that of thousands of others so afflicted: an app to remind them to drink water. Who needs instinct when an app’s got you covered? But oh, cruel irony, she soon discovers she can ignore the app’s chirping reminder just as easily as she tuned out her body. Next stop: install a permanent IV drip and a catheter.
The mind adapts faster than the body evolves. Like it or not we’re still attached to our very needy bodies. Maybe your mind would be relieved if you didn’t have to exercise, socialize, hydrate, and eat nourishing food, but look what’s become of a population that’s already living that way. More intelligence is no substitute for mindfulness — and only as useful as our ability to act on it.
We delude ourselves by thinking that we hold the whole world in our hands, as if information were the same as knowledge, as if knowledge could replace wisdom. Anyone can access information with a click. But we can only claim knowledge after learning, synthesizing, and embodying information. And only when we live out of our accumulated knowledge can we begin to be wise.
As a further sign of our psychological enfeeblement, health apps are now gamified with badges, points, and monetary rewards designed to make us do what we can no longer do on our own steam. Good health alone used to be sufficient motivation to work for it (among those who can be moved to act at all.) Sadly, it appears that intrinsic good is no longer good enough. Moreover, when we buy into the gamifying of human activity we participate in our own infantilization, with echoes of “Eat your broccoli and then you can have dessert.” Except our new Mommy is an algorithm. We don’t have to accept this fate—but we are at a choice point. We can uncritically adopt every new product or service dangled before us. Or we can slow down, modulate, and take charge of our own destiny.
Where Has All the Willpower Gone?
Just as species evolve over time, so can individuals. But it takes real commitment to undo neurological wiring once it’s entrenched. And when the evolution we seek involves reclaiming control over our bodies and minds the pushback is immense. We have to stand up to peer pressure, workplace demands, our own itch for another dopamine pick-me-up, and—always—the siren call of corporate hegemons that want us to continue ceding our lives to them. Every time you’re confronted with a digital prompt you have to decide whether and/or how to respond. How many times a day are you challenged by texts, tweets, emails, pleas for support, ads, and trolls? Each decision, along with the willpower to execute it, takes actual physical energy, drawing down our reserves. We are stricken with “decision fatigue” (yes, it’s a thing): depleted mental energy drains us of self-control. The more decisions you make, the more likely you are to default to the “safest” choice. Safe means making the least difficult choice, which is doing what you’ve always done: dancing to the algorithm’s tune.
Even in the absence of decision fatigue — all of us, fresh, on a good day — technology is advancing faster and foisting upon us more change than we are able to evaluate and metabolize. Evolution is, by definition, gradual. Organisms adapt to changing conditions over the course of millennia. Yet we are asking Nature to make flesh mesh with bits and bytes in less than two generations. Maybe our species (or some variant of it) will weather this transition successfully. Historically speaking, however, sudden, dramatic change is more likely to precipitate an extinction event.
Dinosaurs had no power over the asteroid that would end their reign. Humans can, if we choose, minimize the impact of everything hurtling at us from cyberspace; we can slow the rate of change to a manageable level. In a real democracy, we would be represented by people who legislate on behalf of their entire community, now and for future generations. Instead we have a corporatocracy driven by quarterly profits, everything else be damned, literally. Facebook’s founding motto ”Move fast and break things” is exactly what a young, privileged, unsupervised white man would think is a great idea. Creative disruption doesn’t care about collateral damage. (Job loss due to automation and the precarity of the gig economy are but two examples.) Though he’s since softened it, Zuckerberg’s motto lives on, and it doesn’t look so cheeky to those wandering through wreckage that cannot be unbroken.
A prudent society would be guided by the precautionary principle: Before unleashing anything novel into our bodies or environment it must be proven to do no harm. But people, and Americans in particular, are very good at ignoring potential downsides to “progress” when the upsides are so compelling. No CEO, and few politicians, would dare stop a human herd stampeding to buy the next cool thing.
We start out seeing only the benefits of any change. By the time we’re aware of its dangers, we’re like Wile E. Coyote who recognizes his peril only after he’s run off the edge of the cliff. Technology has so rapidly insinuated itself into every aspect of our lives (driverless cars! TVs that spy on us! attack toasters!) it’s completely integral. It will be difficult to negotiate new terms in a relationship where we’ve already given up so much in the name of convenience and speed.
Not a moment too soon (and quite possibly too late) the culture is finally waking up to the fact that Big Tech is a Trojan horse packed with self-replicating robots. Alarmed by the groundswell of parental fear for their phone-obsessed children, in January two major hedge funds heavily invested in Apple called on the company “to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure” kids are using devices in an “optimal manner,” not addictively. Throwing yet more choices at parents may not be the most useful approach, but it’s a step in the right direction. And shareholders needn’t fear: “paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is …the right thing to do” and could even “increase demand” for Apple products. Social responsibility is fine as long as they don’t take a financial hit. But that’s Apple. Once we buy their devices, however much we use them is irrelevant. As to companies whose business model is built on compulsion— Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snap and every video game ever made—what incentive do they have to help people control themselves?
It seems that a tech bro will only speak truth to power after he’s made his billions, cashed out, and started his own venture fund. Early Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, now expresses “tremendous guilt” about his role in building the social network: “The short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” He confesses that in the “deep recesses of our minds, we kind of knew something bad could happen.” Deep down they knew, but they pushed conscience aside in their reckless zeal to innovate and then profit from their bright ideas. Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker describes how he and Zuckerberg, et al, exploited a vulnerability in human psychology; “[we] understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.” Now he throws up his hands: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Whether or not God is in the loop, science does know. And a wise government would have supported rigorous scientific advance work and held business in check before plunging, irrevocably, into paradigm-shifting, mind-altering, foundation-rocking, culture-disrupting technologies.
Famously, and with no apparent nod to irony, Silicon Valley movers and shakers from Steve Jobs on down, have admitted to sending their children to digital-free schools like Waldorf, and not letting them use cell phones until much later than typical American kids. Lucky them. For the rest of us, the ship of addiction and diminished capacity has sailed. Changing course now is like tacking into a gale.
Is it even possible for us to continue reaping the benefits of the digital revolution while retaining full human agency? Will we be able to hold our own in the face of all we’ve lost? When we’ve forgotten how to remember because Google can find it faster; when undivided attention is the sole purview of machines; when our only sources of pleasure are digital, our only serotonin pharmaceutical; when our vision is so blinkered we are blind to the big picture; when we can’t find our way in the physical world, can’t delay gratification, can’t attend to basic bodily functions without a digital diaper; when we live in a constant state of over-stimulation and hyper-vigilance, riven with chronic diseases; when our still small voice within is replaced by Alexa’s Top Tips for a Better Life?
And when at last we attempt to curb our addiction— making deals with ourselves or our loved ones, deputizing apps to control usage—we find that resisting ever-present temptation has sapped our remaining willpower. Our patience withers. We become creatures of unfettered impulse and little else. And with every mindless click we tap a nail into the coffin of our autonomy, one line of code closer to The Singularity— the fantastical future sought by many techies —when humans and computers merge.
Who Is the Boss of You?
It doesn’t have to go down like that. Tech can only complete its coup with our continued cooperation. We the people must figure out how to harness technology to serve our needs without giving it free reign to exploit our desires. If enough of us wrest control from our digital overlords we can steer the human experiment towards a future that preserves our sovereignty.
You can rebuild your attention span, your willpower, and discipline. The scaffolding is still in place. Beneath layers imposed by the digital era lie the bones of ancient civilizations that make up our genetic and cultural inheritance. Here are some of the tools you’ll need to unearth all that’s buried:
Take a hiatus from your devices every single day. Start with whatever you can tolerate and work your way up. One hour? 30 minutes? Five? You will get anxious. Know that discomfort is your brain working hard to build a new neural pathway.
Develop your powers of memory, concentration, and imagination by reading entire books. On paper. Savor the pleasure of active absorption.
Experience the company of others with your phone turned off. Have conversations. Make eye contact. Listen.
You’ll strengthen your ability to focus just as surely as doing planks will firm your abs.
Know that it will get easier. You will reset your nervous system. You will come to relish periods of calm and quiet. Your health will improve. You will be a better partner, parent, friend, coworker, citizen, and thinker.
Your best ally on the path to wholeness is the Earth itself. Spend time in nature as often as you can—unplugged—to revive your senses, reduce stress, cortisol, blood pressure, and activate empathy.
Cultivating a relationship with nature will awaken your connection to the source that animates all life. You’ll find it in old growth forests, pulsing surf, high desert sagebrush, and the humble backyard garden. Even if all you can access is a city park, you’ll find it.
Contemplate a blade of grass pushing through a crack in concrete, reaching for the light.
Know that you are the grass.
And you are the light.
Lisa Martinovic is a Berkeley based writer and performer whose work explores the intersection of neuroplasticity and addiction at www.Slaminatrix.com.