Life Online: access to the internet is changing us.

I said I’d be posting some more blogs about Cyberpsychology, this is one topic which turned into a really great discussion in class. Are we becoming lazy because of access to the internet, and is this constant access having a fundamental impact on human beings as a species?

human evolution

We are the sum total of our experiences, our brains are moulded by the experiences we have. But never before in human history have we had so much technology and access to so much information at our fingertips. We’re flying blind with how this will impact human beings as a species in the future. We do, however, have some ideas about what is happening to us in the here and now, and from this we can speculate.

Is this constant availability good or bad for us?

What’s the first thing you do when you want to find something out? Just the one word popped into your head right now, didn’t it. Google. You probably Google something if you don’t know the answer, even if you look for real journals and books. There is now a verb which has been legitimately added to dictionaries – ‘to Google’.

google search

Of course, Google is not an oracle, we are all vaguely aware of this. In fact, Google simply works on the basis of a complex algorithm which provides the most frequently clicked responses (so the more popular links) higher up the search. This means that you sometimes get very funny responses to remind you of this, such as ‘if you are what you eat then Voldemort is a unicorn’. The information we get is not always good, or accurate, and if you work in a field like Psychology it’s a complete nightmare in terms of student work.

There is actually another algorithm for all health-related information, which most people are unaware of. Google is trying to get you to go to the doctor, it knows it’s not an oracle or a health professional, it’s just those using Google which are unaware of this. All health related information is actually ranked in order of severity rather than commonly accessed. This is why if you ask for information for innocuous health symptoms, you’ll get some very scary information presented to you in the first couple of pages (WebMD, I’m looking at you…). The purpose is to get you to go to the doctors so that a trained medical professional can diagnose you accurately. I do understand why people Google symptoms, but it’s not a good idea, just go straight to the NHS website, it’s far more level-headed and accurate, and you’re far less likely to be panicking on route to the doctor. Better yet, just make an appointment at the doctor or your local walk-in clinic.

We have access to a huge amount of information via the internet, and with the advent of smart phones in 2008 (yes, really, they are that young) and the increasing availability of high-speed Wi-Fi we now have super-quick access to this huge amount of information. What has that done to your patience? Your attention span? Your ability to concentrate? And what has it done to your ability to discriminate information?

instant access

Our attention spans are shortened as a result of this high-speed access. We don’t have to wait, so we don’t develop the skills to wait, we flip between articles, social media, sports results, random searches for information we want to find out, and all at the tap of a screen or a couple of buttons.

Patience was needed in the ‘old days’ when information loaded slowly on-screen (and I mean literally line by flippin’ line on the screen those of you not old enough to remember), it was so frustrating I gave up and went to find a book most times. We are slowly turning into individuals who are used to quick changes of stimuli, constantly accessible information on multiple platforms, even those of us who didn’t grow up with this level of access.  We switch from stimulus to stimuli, frequently trying to multi-task (which technically we can’t actually do without consequence) and this is resulting in something known as ‘continual partial attention’, whereby we continuously give partial attention to what we’re doing, and never give anything full attention, including our loved ones.

How do you manage the boundaries between the online and offline world? Or is this a balance you’re trying to achieve? Do you constantly access your phone to find out what is happening with friends, in favourite topic areas, the world? Are you addicted to Pokémon Go? I’ve nothing against Pokémon Go, it’s a great way to get people outside and is a small ray of geeky sunshine in what is a fairly dismal world right now. But, do you go for lovely long walks hunting for the various creatures and miss all the scenery while you’re walking?

Do you check your phone while you’re in the bathroom? Or while you’re out to dinner with family/friends? We all of us access our phones far too often, and there is a genuine level of panic when we temporarily misplace them.

can't tear ourselves away

Our boundaries are way out of whack when it comes to technology and the internet. We constantly struggle for a work/life balance, we hear about that all the time; but what about a technology/life balance? Technology isn’t life, but we often forget this because of the access we have to loved ones via this technology – even when that comes at the expense of the loved ones we are with at the time (FOMO – fear of missing out).

Technology and instant internet access has become normalised. It didn’t used to be normal, but then normal changes with each generation. What is considered normal is simply a reflection of what is most commonly accepted in the society. Right now, multi-tasking on smart phones while you’re watching TV and on the computer, or walking around staring at your phone catching imaginary creatures is considered normal – if not always acceptable and healthy. When I grew up, hanging out at the park and your parents not knowing precisely where you were was normal. There are pro’s and con’s to having these very powerful phones/computers in our pockets.

hanging out

Constant connection and access also means our lives are frequently played out online. Social media is something the vast majority have access to and we upload huge amounts of our lives here. Right now it’s Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr and more. When I was in my 20’s it was MySpace, Friendster, Flickr and chatrooms.

These have all appeared since 2002, and given I’d got two degrees by this point (yes, this makes me feel old), most of these passed me by until a few years later when Facebook really took off. And I am so glad they did! When I did a seminar on surveillance, my students were finding all their old pages from MySpace and Flickr, and there was plenty of evidence of their teenage years including all old crushes, random snogs and relationships. Some hilarity ensued in the classroom, but a serious point was made – students had forgotten about these sites as they didn’t use them anymore, but the information was still there, available for all to see. A couple of students closed those sites down there and then. We don’t monitor things we’ve stopped using, we don’t forget about them but we no longer allocate them attentional resources. As a result this information stays in the vast repository that is the internet, digital evidence of our past. It might mark me out as old, but I am so glad I only have my shared memories with friends and a couple of photos!

stupid stuff before the internet

Don’t get me wrong, I love social media, I know I’m on it far too much, but I still love it. I’m in touch with so many friends from the past because of it, including many I’d lost touch with, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I do think that now we have this level of accessibility, we need to learn how to monitor it. Some of us do, but I suspect it’s those of us who didn’t grow up with it rather than those for whom it is entirely normalised. Maybe the next step in technological advancement will relate to privacy and information storage – Edward Snowdon and Anonymous are leading the charge here with their disparate approaches.

We take this accessibility for granted, and this is evident in the frustration when internet speeds aren’t ‘fast enough’ and when things do not load instantaneously (even those of us who knew it way back when pages loaded a line at a time). We have habituated to the current level of access. Smart phones might have been around less than a decade, but already we all feel we’d be lost without them – even if we’d quite like to disconnect sometimes.

So what would happen if we lost all technology overnight? This would happen if a nuclear war broke out, a nuclear blast is preceded by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP – or a ‘pinch’ as it’s described in Ocean’s Eleven). An EMP will fry all electronic equipment, whether it’s on or off, and render it completely useless, all digital records would be lost permanently. If nuclear blasts went off in developed areas, those areas would be thrown back into pre-technology days and we would struggle. Of course we’d survive, humans are resilient creatures, but we’d struggle for a while – just think about how you react when your phone runs out of battery!

no wifi

But it is clear that this level of accessibility, and this obsession (and addiction) with our phones can lead to us missing out on life going on around us. There are plenty of videos on YouTube, but a particularly poignant one was sent to me by a recently graduated student – have a watch here, because it highlights quite how much we can miss out on when we’re looking at our phones.

This is a good place to end this, so look up from your phone, engage with the life you have around you. You don’t need to be connected all the time, sometimes the best moments come when you disconnect. Don’t miss out.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s