Technology didn’t come about by accident, it’s a reflection of human will, or so claims the intriguing documentary, “Stare Into the Lights My Pretties.” Yet, with the rate of technological development continuing to grow exponentially, it’s unclear if anyone envisioned how society would become obsessed with staring at screens, such that our waking hours are dominated by them in one form or another.
In the beginning, there were only a few ways to get new technology funded, known as the ABCs. “A,” for armed forces, included ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which commissioned the work that started the internet. “B,” for bureaucracy, refers to innovations such as government sites intended to deliver information and services, including online tax returns. “C,” or corporate power, made up the third arm, which drove the development of new products to draw in new markets.
According to Lelia Green, a professor and senior lecturer at the school of communications at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia, who is featured in the film, “Google would offer many examples of corporate power driving development.”1 Yet, social engagement is the new driver of technology that has taken off more so in recent years. Green notes that distributed collaborators and everyday innovators are now an important driver of technology.
“The acknowledgement of distributed networks of collaborators allows recognition of the creative power of ‘harnessing the hive;’ the community of people engaged in a shared activity,” she says. “We see these alliances of enthusiasts working creatively and productively in gaming contexts, in wikis and on fan fiction sites — to name but a few,” but what does all of this mean, and what will happen if this technological culture is left to continue unchecked?
Are Machines Running Our Lives?
At the foundation of the documentary is the unsettling question of who’s really in control: the machines or us? The film gives some unsettling statistics of how integrated technology has become in our 21st century lives:
- Over 3.8 billion people have access to the internet
- There are 2 billion active Facebook users every month
- The average adult spends more than eight hours a day with screens (more time than sleep)
- Within the first 15 minutes of waking up, 4 out of 5 smartphone users check their phones
- By the time the average person reaches 70, they will have spent the equivalent of 10 to 15 years of their life watching television, more than four years of which was just for the ads
What does this mean for your brain? “As a neuroscientist, I know that the human brain is changing. I know that it’s highly plastic … it’s very dynamic, it will adapt to the environment,” says Susan Greenfield in the film. But the environmental stimuli that come through screens may be keeping us permanently distracted. You read an article online, then see an instant message pop up or go to check an email.
Then you click on an advertisement, and suddenly are watching a video about an entirely unrelated topic. It’s easy to get swept away into the internet bubble, which can have both benefits and risks. Greenfield explained:
“I’ve often spoken about the benefits of screen culture being one of agile processing, but how that mustn’t be confused with content … it could be linked to high IQ, because the skills that you rehearsed when you play video games are similar to the skills required to do well on an IQ test.
You don’t need a lot of facts or infrastructure … but you have to be very agile at looking at patterns and connections and getting to an answer in a very fast time frame … just because, as many claim, we’re seeing an increase in IQ scores in many societies, we’re not seeing an increase in empathy and understanding.”
In a meta-analysis of 116 studies published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,2 for example, which set out to determine what effects gaming has on your brain, the evidence suggests that video games may benefit attention, and video game players show improvements in selective attention, divided attention and sustained attention, as well as areas of cognitive control and visuospatial skills.
The downside may be their effects on reward processing areas of your brain. Many such areas have been shown to be affected in people with video game addiction, “an impulse-control disorder with psychological consequences, not unlike other addictive disorders, especially nonsubstance addictions such as pathological gambling,” the study noted.3 “On the one hand, yes it’s very good for mental processing, fluid intelligence,” Greenfield said, “ … but that’s not the same as understanding. Information is not knowledge.”
Are Screens Leaving Us Incapable of Deep Thinking, Addicted to Constant Scrolling?
Nicholas Carr, author of the books, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” and “Utopia Is Creepy,” has found that with rising use of digital devices, millennials are experiencing even greater problems with forgetfulness than seniors.4 This is the “dark side” of neurological plasticity that allows your brain to adapt to changes in your environment.
This type of plasticity is one way your brain recovers after a stroke has permanently damaged one area. However, the consequences to children growing up in the digital era could be devastating. Carr said in the film:
“The human brain is particularly malleable when you’re young. If a person is brought up looking at screens … and being bombarded by information, then the question is will the brain circuitry necessary to do things like deep reading and deep thinking, will they ever come into being … or will they be wired for internet type of thinking?
I think the big fear is that we will end up with a generation of people who are very good at using the net and finding information very quickly but don’t really have a capacity for contemplativeness, concentration or deep engagement with information.”
There are concerns about addiction as well, with 40 percent of the participants in one study admitting they had some level of an internet-related problem and acknowledging they spent too much time online.5 Participants reportedly spent an average of five hours each day on the internet and 20 percent spent over six hours a day. By far the most common reasons for engaging online were social media and shopping.
Yet, overall social media use, and especially nighttime use, has been associated with poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression among 12- to 18-year-olds, according to research presented at a British Psychological Society conference.6 Greater social media use among young adults (those aged 19 to 32 years) was also significantly associated with disturbed sleep in a Preventive Medicine study.7
Further, a study of more than 1,000 people in Denmark further revealed causal evidence that “Facebook affects our well-being negatively.”8 Facebook users who took a one-week break from the site reported significantly higher levels of life satisfaction and a significantly improved emotional life, the study revealed.