(Image credit: Angel Boligan Corbo - boligan.com)
For most of human history, people were confined to relatively tiny spheres of influence and limited sources of information. Then, in the year 1440, the Western world was introduced to the printing press, which exponentially increased the availability of written texts, and would take us all the way from printed Bibles for churches to daily newspapers for the average Joe. Five hundred years later (give or take a few decades), we were given the automobile, which increased the average radius of travel in ways previously unimaginable. Then in rapid succession we invented radio, planes, television, and the internet. Each one of these innovations broadened our ability to connect and communicate with other humans in the world.
After the introduction of the internet, the rate of major developments in human communication went from centuries and decades to years and months. Over the course of 20 years, we gained the ability to talk with anyone, purchase anything, and watch videos and read news from anywhere in the world - all within seconds.
If we aren’t careful about how, when, and where we consume, we will end up being consumed.
Today, the evolution of connectivity is no longer in the realm of years, months, or even days. We’re talking minutes and seconds here. Let’s look at podcasts as an example, which are a rapidly growing form of media. More than 25,000 podcasts were released last month. That’s right: almost a thousand new podcasts a day. That’s a new show every minute and a half. And that’s just podcasts, which take significantly more work to publish than the average blog post.
There has never been a culture more saturated with constant content consumption. We are truly inundated with content. So much comes at us every second that most of it passes us right by. In seconds, we scroll past more articles on our social media feed than an entire daily newspaper would have had a few decades ago. We see hundreds of updates from friends all over the world that would have taken weeks or months to arrive by mail just a few decades ago.
What we often fail to realize is that we are living in a minefield. It’s not that the availability of content in and of itself is a danger. It’s the culture that’s built around it, and the attitude with which we approach it. It’s so easy to dismiss things we might really need to hear, or get caught up wasting time in things that really bring no life or lasting value to us.
And yet, this minefield is simultaneously full of potential energy beyond our wildest imaginations. It offers more education than the best museums and libraries. It makes more space for communication than any town hall meeting or conference ever could. It gives the opportunity to share our creative work with viewers and readers millions of times beyond any writer’s group or art collective in history. It gives anyone and everyone (for better or for worse) their own stage to try out their stand-up comedy. It’s a global open mic night - and anyone who has been to a few of those will instantly understand how that is both inspiring and horrifying.
I want to take just a few minutes to ponder the darker side of three “blessings” of technology. I’m not denying that access to all of this content is indeed a blessing. We are truly living on the frontier of human development, and the future is wide open. But there are mines in those open fields, and we are best advised to take caution as we proceed.
1. We have access to all the information in the world - so we become numbed to it
The oversaturation and obsession with technology today is objectively changing the way we interact with the world and with other people. It causes plenty of psychological and physical side effects, which a quick Google search will tell you all about (and yes, I realize the irony of telling you to go Google content here). Our brain chemistry is being changed, and we are slowly becoming numbed to new content and disconnected with the world that is right outside our front doors.
One chapter in the Tao te Ching says, “The five colors blind the eye. The five tones deafen the ear. The five flavors dull the taste.” The “five” here represents an overabundance of sensory stimulation. We are literally and not just metaphorically living in a world where our eyes are being blinded and our ears are being deafened by the constant assault of colors and sounds that technological advancements have put right in our pockets.
So the mine in the field is that if we aren’t careful about how, when, and where we consume, we will end up being consumed. This article isn’t meant to be a how-to guide, but some examples of what this looks like are here:
Setting limits on technology use, especially in social settings
Having “blackout” times built into your day or week (I don’t use my phone on Sunday mornings/early afternoons, for example)
Regularly checking the screentime app on your iPhone (or something similar on other brands) to see which apps and sites are taking up the most time, and how many times per day you are picking up your phone. Since it compares week-by-week, you could even set goals to reduce your screentime by a certain percentage.
But even if you have a specific plan of action, this won’t automatically guarantee you security against information overload. On the other hand, even if you don’t have a specific plan, you can still take the steps to reorient your heart and mind. Because even though this article may not appear to be about “faith and spirituality” as directly as some of my other pieces are, I believe this is a deeply spiritual issue. What could be more spiritual than this topic, which at its root affects the way we view ourselves, others, and even the whole world?
2. We have access to everyone’s opinion - so we can always find someone who agrees with us
We now have the ability to speak our mind on any topic you could possibly imagine, and if we are so inclined, we can read what everyone else is thinking too. This is an enormous blessing, but anyone who has ever followed a degenerate comment thread also knows how ugly this blessing can actually be.
There are plenty of “mines” in this part of the field, but I want to focus on one: we can always find someone who agrees with us. We already know that humans tend to operate with “confirmation bias,” which means that we generally interpret new information in a way that either confirms or reinforces our existing opinions and convictions. But today, we don’t even have to use our confirmation bias mechanism as much, since a few seconds searching and browsing will provide us with hundreds of people already committed to confirming what we think. And more often than not, we’ll find at least a few who put words to those things that we didn’t think of before, who make arguments for our case that buff up our arsenal, and who - simply by their very existence - pat us on the back and tell us we really have the right opinion, because there is strength in numbers. Group-think is a powerful (and often terrifying) reality, and the internet makes it possible to access it within the privacy of our own homes.
We have to be mindful of which voices we are allowing into our ears. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean we should just block out certain voices. Rather, I think we need to be careful when we are blocking out more and more and choosing only to listen to those who we agree with. The internet gives us instant access to every point of view imaginable, yet we usually end up placing ourselves in feedback loops and echo chambers, where we only hear what we want to hear.
Group-think is a powerful (and often terrifying) reality, and the internet makes it possible to access it within the privacy of our own homes.
We have to be intentional about listening to other voices if we want to break this cycle, because the fact is we are fighting an uphill battle. Not only does it go against human nature to make ourselves listen to “the other” and view them as human, but it goes against technological nature now, too. A huge amount of what we see online is controlled by algorithms designed to show us exactly what we want to see so that big companies can make a profit off of it by selling us stuff or mining our data. And yet, if we want to avoid letting ourselves become partisan clones, digging our roots deeper and deeper into our already entrenched positions, then we have to make deliberate efforts to break out and listen to other points of view.
3. We have access to everything everyone has ever said - so we can (almost) always discredit them if we want to
The flip side of the coin is that unless we restrict our browsing to completely walled gardens, we frequently encounter content from people who, eloquently or not, disagree with us. Our confirmation bias will generally kick in, and we immediately start looking for holes in their argument that we can use to dismantle it. This has always been human nature, and it takes a good bit of intentionality and maturity to keep this impulse in check, but it is always waiting to rear its ugly head if we aren’t vigilant.
The “mine” here is that with just a click or two, we can immediately access everything else this individual has posted online. We can quickly swipe with our thumbs or scroll with our mouse to look for places where they made a more obvious mistake or said something unsavory that puts a stain on their character. Confirmation bias then makes it easy to use these other, sometimes totally unrelated, words (or pictures) to discredit their original point.
To put this in more practical language, allow me to give an example from my own life that happened just yesterday. I saw a post that a friend had shared about something religious/political (it’s unfortunate how much people combine those two right now) that I really didn’t like. But on the surface, his argument wasn’t easy to refute. So I clicked on his name and started scrolling through his post history. I was able to find two or three juicy bits of things that, in my opinion, were rude, aggressive, poorly worded, or just plain wrong - at least, from my perspective. I then used these posts, which were completely unrelated to the one I saw first, to easily dismiss the original argument, because clearly the man writing it wasn’t one I wanted to listen to. In fact, it was that little episode that helped take this post from an idea jotted on a scrap of paper to something I actually wanted to write.
I realize that this article is more abstract than down-to-earth, and most of the things I’ve written are in no way revolutionary. I’m not really saying anything groundbreaking or offering any radically new insight. But in my mind, these are things we take for granted, and we really need to stop and think about the way we think. If we have any intentions of becoming more healthy, whole, well-rounded, and loving people, then the first step is becoming aware of these blind spots.
I hope this piece sheds a little light on those spots, or at least gives a helpful reminder that without introspection and careful navigation, the technology all around us can become divisive and even destructive to human relationships - even though it was always intended to unite us and fuel the creative impulse to make the world a better place.