Technology profoundly impacts on the way that we experience and interact with the world. From changing the way that we communicate and the way we look up information, to creating new forms of entertainment and self-expression – it is a critical tool in almost everything we do.
While this is something we generally accept as normal, there comes a point when this starts to impact on the way we think about the world and our role in it, and when it starts to shape our cognitive development. As surprising as it may sound, your psychology has already likely been affected by your interactions with technology, and this is likely to continue even more in the future.
Don’t be alarmed though, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and nor is it a good thing. What’s important is simply that we understand the complex interplay between our technology and our psychology and that we learn to manage this interaction as a result to make sure that the changes are positive going forward. Read on to see how technology has already affected you, and what the future might have in store for the way our brains and society work…
Changes We’re Already Experiencing
Easiest to understand and engage with are the changes that have already happened. One of the most prominent and most discussed of these is the effect that the internet has had on our attention-spans. Many people believe that the fact we have so much information and entertainment readily available to us has led to our attention-spans becoming shorter as we have less time or inclination for reading long blocks of text. Indeed the average amount of time spent on a website is less than a minute, which seems to tell us something about the way we use the web and the way it has affected our attention spans (then again though, this might speak more to the quality of most of the web…). Imagine that this article was a single block of text with no paragraphs or headings… would you still read it?
Of course this change isn’t something that’s universally accepted, and there are many arguments that can be made against it. Sure we read fewer books today, but couldn’t that just be because we have more options? Perhaps we gather information more quickly now because we’re more busy, or because we’ve become better at skim reading and deciding which articles are worth our time. But then again, those too would be changes to our psychology.
Another concern raised by some psychologists is to do with our sense-of-self. This is our sense of individuality and purpose in the world, and the way we believe we fit into our social groups and social structure. The worry here is that social networking sites, forums and other online tools might be expanding our ‘social world’ to the point where we lose some of this identity and are more likely to be influenced by those around us. If you interact with 100 people a day rather than 10, then might it not be harder to make up your own mind about things? Others suggest that social media makes us more likely to construct ‘facades’ for the way we want to be seen rather than being true to ourselves. A speculation of my own is that social media and mobile phones might simply have made us more dependent on others and more ill-at-ease when we’re out of contact.
But it’s not all bad, as research has also shown that the web has had some remarkably positive impacts on our psychology. In particular, the access it gives us to information, and the number of people it connects us with, may have helped us to become more open-minded and more worldly than we ever have been before. We are exposed to more opinions and more ways of life which helps us to be less judgemental and more accepting.
While these changes aren’t definite, aren’t inevitable and aren’t all-bad, what’s important is that we be aware of them and that we manage their effects. If you spend all day sifting through text on the web, then maybe spend some time reading a good book too. And if you find yourself becoming more dependent on other people, then perhaps try going ‘off the grid’ for a while to get some perspective back.
While technology has impacted on our psychology already though, what’s potentially more profound is the way that it might change us in the future. Technology generally changes at an exponential rate, meaning that the next decade is likely to hold more rapid changes than any before it – and that’s going to have a psychological toll.
Our use of the internet and social media for instance is only likely to increase over the coming years as connections get faster and as more and more people start joining these networks. The direction this is heading in might well result in social media being ‘integrated’ into wearable technology to the point where we can talk to anyone we want and share pictures almost wherever we are. Imagine Google Glass with free calls to anyone over a 4g connection – speaking to friends would be quicker, easier and more versatile than ever before and this might result in our developing much more of a ‘hive’ mentality.
One new technology meanwhile that’s likely to have one of the biggest impacts on the way we think and experience the world is no doubt virtual reality. This is an area that has come on in leaps and bounds following the recent announcement of the ‘Oculus Rift’ VR headset, and it’s only likely to increase as developers around the world get excited by the possibilities and the technology continues to improve. If you want to see just how far VR has come already then look into the Oculus Rift as well as the ‘Virtuix Omni’ (a platform that allows you to walk in any direction while remaining stationary) and the ‘Razer Hydra’ (dual ‘Wii’ like controllers for PC). Combine these three devices and you can experience a virtual world almost as though it were a real one.
The question is, what happens when this experience is so good that we can explore the Coliseum in Rome and it feels like we’re really there? Or when we can have intercourse with a virtual partner and it feels and looks real? At this point we might even do away with the need for some of our fundamental experiences, and this would no doubt have profound impacts on our psychology – as well as opening up entirely new avenues for education, business, research and social interactions.
And that’s before we even start to look at transhuman technologies – developments focussed clearly on changing the human condition to the point where we are capable of incredible superhuman feats and where we no longer age or experience negative emotions. Image what that could do to our sense-of-self… (Think it’s a long way off? Look up ‘biohacking’, ‘gene doping’ or ‘Kevin Warwick’ and then come back to me…).
It’s a brave new world, but what’s going to change the most isn’t your smartphone: it’s you…