A far cry from the days of Timothy Leary, today’s counterculture is not dropping out, but is logging in more now than ever. Ironically, a different child of the 60’s was one of the primary driving forces that advanced this global trend. While Steve Jobs passed away in 2011, his impact continues to be as unparalleled as it is ubiquitous.
In 1976, when he was only 21 years of age, he co-founded Apple Computers with Steve Wozniak. Together, the two of them have been credited with transforming the entire Information Technology industry by making computers more user-friendly, less expensive and more appealing to non-technologically inclined people.
As a result of his work, coupled with the explosion of the Internet and other digital technological advances, the world has never been the same.
The sheer explosion of the digital revolution has made author Thomas Friedman Nostradamus- like when he predicted the world would become increasingly “flat”. 1 Not only has our world become “flat”, it has become “hyper-connected”.
We cannot go anywhere without our digital devices, be it our smart phones, our computers, or other digital devices. We are “connected” as no other time in history. In fact, it seems we are increasingly in a constant state of readiness to connect/do face time/email/text or just play one of a million addictive digital games.
As soon as we wake up, our first action of the day is to turn off our digital alarm clock on our smart phone. We go on a run using our favorite “Apps” for recording our long-distance runs. Then we play our favorite Pandora music channel as we shave, shower and get ready for work. On the way to work, we listen to a podcast on our favorite topic or speaker.
When we are at work, we hit “shuffle” all on our iPhone playlist and have our favorite music in the background while we work. In order to get a head start on that evening’s dinner out, we check the menu of the restaurant through our smart phone’s Internet access.
On the way to the restaurant, we text our spouse to tell him/her we will be 15 minutes late, and while waiting at red lights, we are busy checking the latest sports score or stock report, while trying not to get into a wreck. After dinner and putting the kids to bed, we check our email, send a few more texts and read our kindle, or watch our favorite show through Hulu on our laptop.
Before going to bed, we set our digital alarm clock, choosing the least annoying alarm tone we can find on our smart phone. So ends another beautiful day in our digitally tethered world.
But is constant connectivity good for us?
We are connecting with more people, more often and more rapidly than at anytime in history, but this has not necessarily improved the overall health of our relationships. The ability and ease of reconnecting with a former friend from Junior High would be nearly unthinkable a decade ago.
Yet now, thanks to Facebook, it is as easy as typing your former Junior High friend’s name in the search menu at the top of your Facebook home page. Facebook has become the “ultimate class reunion”, as author Jesse Rice has said.2
However, while the quantity, speed and reach of our ability to connect in community continue to increase at a dizzying pace, the quality of our connection with each other is diminishing. Ironically, despite this amazing ability to connect with friends all over the world, sincere connection with others and authentic friendships are needed now more than ever precisely because they are increasingly more difficult to find and cultivate.
Popular author Malcolm Gladwell, author of the “Tipping Point”, argues that the sheer amount of information available to us is contributing to “information overload”.3 Gladwell continues, “To be someone’s best friend…requires a minimum amount of time. More than that, though, it takes emotional energy”.4
Could we be overloaded with too many Facebook “friends” and not enough real friends? Perhaps our culture’s assumption that it is better to have more social media friends than less, is actually not better if it means eclipsing the meaning of true friendship? Research is increasingly demonstrating the negative impact of always being connected, not only in regards to our relationships but also in regards to our physical and intellectual wellbeing.
For example, we are losing our ability to focus and give our singular attention to any one person or thing. Linda Stone, a technology thought leader, is studying the recent phenomenon she calls “Continuous Partial Attention, or CPA.”5
The problem becomes, as Stone points out, when this “always on, anywhere, anytime, any place” mentality “creates an artificial sense of crisis.”6 This condition creates a physiological condition similar to that of an addiction. Stone states, “Continuous partial attention and the fight or flight response associated with it sets off a cascade of stress hormones, starting with norepinephrine and its companion, cortisol.”7
The end result of this condition negatively affects our ability to have sustained attention on any one thing or person, and we become “overstimulated and unfulfilled.”8 This has caused some to call our current generation, the generation of the “tethered self”, as MIT professor Sherry Turkle has stated.9 Through the technology of smart phones, we can always be in “reach”, always “on” and always available to tweet, text or email.
If this is not enough to raise concerns about the long-term impact of our digital addiction, the Internet is also making us less intelligent, so argues author Nicolas Starr. Starr is the author of the “Shallows” 10. He is not alone in this assessment. There is a growing group of scholars who are mounting evidence pointing to the conclusion that the Internet is turning us into “scattered and superficial thinkers”.
Starr states this about the impact the Internet is having on our ability to concentrate, “People who are continually distracted by emails, updates and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are often less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.”11
Additionally, Dr. Edward Hallowell, former Harvard faculty member, and author of the book “Crazy Busy”, has stated this about our current culture’s over-packed and overworked lives, “‘What we’re seeing, we’ve never seen in human history before. It’s just the extraordinary availability and magnetism of electronic communication devices…It can feel at times that our technology is managing us and not the other way around.’”12 Duke University researchers Jake Vigdor and Helen Ladd at Duke University, North Carolina undertook another study on this topic.
Their research was spread over five years, as they surveyed over 100,000 children. What they found was a direct relationship between “declining test scores in both mathematics and reading and the spread of home computers and broadband.”13 In short summary, just because we can know more information than ever before, does not mean we are retaining it more effectively nor utilizing it to our benefit.
At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, in light of this growing evidence, perhaps we need to take a deeper look at the full impact of our always-connected state. Maybe it is time to take an inventory of our growing dependence on technology.
Are we addicted to our digital devices? Is the lure of technology just too much to resist? Are we growing less connected relationally despite becoming more connected digitally? Our relational and physical health, along with our intellectual wellbeing, may be hanging in the balance.