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Are The Human Body and Mind Really Being Changed By the Digital Era?

Are The Human Body and Mind Really Being Changed By the Digital Era?

Society is getting used to the dramatic changes the digital era has brought and continues to bring on the way we shop, holiday, build, work, move and think. We have absorbed changes in health, teaching, defence, security and business that previous generations could not have dreamed of.

Now people are starting to wonder if it’s fundamentally changing our actual bodies too.

Paul Kendall asked in the magazine Seven (10 March 2013), ‘are we being rewired?’ Sometimes for every negative there is a positive benefit to humanity too.

Other angles:

Observations on the Way/How We Live Has Changed and Will Change Again, 19 February 2013

How the Google Effect Reprogrammed Our World, 22 November 2011

Harder to concentrate

He quoted a book by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which examined how multi-tasking people are adversely influenced by ‘irrelevant environmental stimuli’.

The converse he cited was that young people now (digital natives) can ‘find and filter information, respond to stimuli and do fast, incisive analysis’. Their parents’ generations didn’t work at that speed or level.

Remembering Differently

He reckoned that one in three Britons cannot remember their own numbers. It is now ‘so easy’ to find information on Google’ that we are forgetting how to recall facts at all, but can remember how/where to retrieve the data we need.

Empathetic No More

Kendall said that MRI scans had shown that when we read we less involve ourselves in the plight of others, real or fiction, that we did. Why? Because we ‘consume information superficially’.

Vanishing Practical Skills

Many old, basic skills are disappearing. Fast and ready-made food has diminished cooking, so that people have to be taught to bake. Few youngsters can do simple DIY jobs any longer. 80% of 18-30 year olds are unable to drive anywhere without a satnav. Even joined up writing is going – a US study found only 15% of 16-17 year olds used joined up writing.

Friends Are Not What They Were

Apps and social media mean we may have more ‘friends’ who share our interests, but they come from a narrower cross section of society. He put it that we’re becoming ‘more tribal and less exposed to people with interests and beliefs different from our own’.

Socialising itself has changed. people prefer to text or tweet or email rather than talk face-to-face, even with people who are relatively physically close to them. That may be fine, but it means we no longer read well body language from other people.

Anxious About Anxiety

Kendall said that constant communication makes you anxious about ‘being out of the loop’, or FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Other studies have found people check their devices once every six and a half minutes.

The addictive nature of devices and the web itself is increasingly well documented. it is the prefrontal cortex part of the brain which is affected, the part responsible for decision making and self-control. One psychiatrist has apparently identified a condition, Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD) which he is having to treat among patients. Others reckon that it takes just a few hours for web users to have the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (short-term memory and decision-making) to be changed forever.

Twenty years ago, doctors estimated 13% of their patients were hypochondriacs. Some GPs now say they have to give a day a week to people who have self-diagnosed online. Sales of mobile health apps have now topped £86 million a year, so it goes on accelerating.

Other angles:

Email Hoarding Is New Psychological Condition, 17 April 2012

Digital Addictions Hook More People, 16 February 2012

Other Health Concerns

There are many cases of ‘text neck’ and ‘iPad shoulder’, according to Kendal which doctors are finding. However, within a few years, as the technology becomes more brain-driven, eye and voice commanded rather than touch-sensitive, such problems may disappear.

While procrastination is not a medical thing, it can affect people’s general well-being. Kendall cited a professor at Calgary University who said ‘we work in motivationally toxic environments’, where at a click there are jokes, comments, reviews, adverts, YouTube, ‘whatever your poison’, it’s there to distract you.

People are more rude now thanks to increased use of smartphones and their views encouraged on the web. Conversations online are endless. Opinions, however outrageous are positively encouraged. Anti-social use of smartphones is growing. Lack of privacy, invasive video recordings and the widespread abuse of people by internet trolls and others, all mean that society has fundamentally shifted.

Other angles:

The Cult of the Smartphone Finally Replaces Common Sense, 13 February 2013

The Smartphone is Becoming the Asset That’s Just Too Big to Lose, 14 January 2013

New Codes of Conduct for Using Smartphones in Public, 31 July 2012

A New Evil from Sick People Stalks the Net, 11 June 2012

Teenage Brains Are Different: Official! 25 October 2011

Death Does Not Close the Account

Kendall reported that how we die is changing too. He said, ‘digital estate handling is a boom industry’. You can get a customised grave. Memory books online mean the departed will never actually disappear. Your digital afterlife or legacy is preserved, and thus is available to abuse, charging and changing far more than it is in the real world today.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg said in 2010 that ‘privacy is no longer the social norm’. Anything and everything we have ever done will be available to whoever wants to know. Or as Kendall put it, image-recognition software means we can identify anyone and his/her history just by pointing a phone at them.

Google’s Schmidt warned that teenagers in the future may change their names ‘to escape their cyber past’. A chilling thought.

Other angles:

Life-Logging Is Not the Harmless Fun It’s Portrayed to Be, 6 February 2013

Will Your Digital Afterlife Make a Good Novel After You Are Dead? 10 September 2012

Vice Before Death; Virtual Life After Death, 25 June 2012

Anything Good to say?

Yes. Video game skills benefit education and health treatments. Crowd sourcing is being used to plan how to beat Somali pirates, through the US Navy’s Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) program.

The internet exercises the brain in a way similar to doing crossword puzzles, which is particular benefit to older people who need to keep their minds fit.

Whether these beneficial points outweigh the fears, dangers and threats from all the above changes, remains to be seen. And may well depend on how old you are as you read this.

Other angles:

After Robot Soldiers and Robot Surgeons, Stand Up for Robot Teachers, 5 March 2013

The Internet Is Simultaneously Both Good Cop and Bad Guy, 8 January 2013

Einstein’s New Year Message on Technology, Humanity and Idiots, 1 January 2013

Image: Momotarou2012