How technology is encouraging society to be stupid

Merry Christmas. Happy birthday. Happy… Darwin Day?

In the long list of observed holidays, Darwin Day may seem like a weird one to celebrate. But as the father of evolutionary thought, our buddy Charlie has given us plenty to consider, and changed everything we understand about ourselves and our world.

While this is a great day to sit back, grab a copy of Origin of Species, and revel in all that humanity has done for science and reason, this post is written to do quite the opposite.

Instead of diving into Darwin’s discovery of natural selection, I’d rather touch upon how the advent of modern technology has made us dumber. Not in a blatant ‘Darwin Awards’ aspect, but in a more subtle – and possibly more disastrous – way.

The internet has only been around some 20-odd years, yet it’s hard to imagine life without it. I live abroad, but am able to stay in touch with friends and family across the globe. And in a world as vast as ours, the net has given us instant access to a myriad of information otherwise impossible.

Make no mistake, I’m not demonizing the Web, but our dependence on it has a sinister side – turning our thoughts into a scattered and superficial mess with its constant distractions.

Attention span

You can’t go a minute without checking your texts or  see who’s favorited your most recent tweet. I, myself, have checked my social media accounts four times while writing this. Being always connected has become almost as habitual as breathing. And yet we can’t remember how we got to this point.

As Roman philosopher Seneca put it: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

It’s not the internet that’s to blame, however, but our own craving for distraction.

When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, our brains can’t forge the neural connections that give distinctiveness and depth to our thinking.

In an experiment at Stanford University, it was determined that our thoughts become disjointed with increased distractions and multitasking. As such, we’re much less able to distinguish important information from the trivial stuff.

Fake news

You can barely navigate the internet without coming across fake news. I can’t recall when the flair for the dramatic became the norm, but when clickbait titles were no longer shiny and new, publishers had to resort to other creative tactics for traffic. Combine this with anyone and everyone having the ability to publish and post online and you have this new obsession with 100 percent misleading ‘news’.

While people are quick to blame the publishers, it’s the millions of people who can’t be bothered to pick up a newspaper or find a decent online source. Not to mention those who can’t tell the difference between Breitbart and The Associated Press.

If you can’t name your two US senators, you are not all of a sudden an expert in governmental proceedings. Yet everyone believes they are. They believe their opinion is on par with facts. This is just one way lies and conspiracy theories routinely gain credibility. Add a bit of bias to the mix and you’ve got the perfect mathematical equation as to why false new stories are so persuasive. 

That’s exactly why fact-checking doesn’t work anymore. As Susan Glasser, former editor of Politico, explains “Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn’t work; the more news outlets did it, the less the facts resonated.”

But fake news isn’t solely damaging to the people it’s targeted towards. Pizzagate wasn’t just a funny name to a fake conspiracy, it motivated a lone gunman to enter a restaurant with a loaded weapon.

Critical thinking

Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel wrote that only when we pay close attention to information are we able to associate it “meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory”. Such associations are essential to mastering complex concepts and critical thinking.

Unfortunately, we now live in a world where you don’t need to think to do anything. We’ve become dependent on the internet to collect information instead of looking to ourselves to problem-solve. Everything from news to opinions to locations are just a Google-search away.

As technology advances and social media algorithms continue to only show things it perceives we like, we will continue to live in an echo-chamber of our opinion and those that think exactly like us.

It’s up to us as a society to keep ourselves informed and educated, not be dependent upon technology to do it for us. 

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