With the rise of mobile phones, social media sites, and now new technology such as the Apple Watch, we have a constant influx of information being hurled at us each day.
We can now Google something if we don’t remember the answer. We can carry out complex transactions in a matter of seconds. We can also nurture our personal and business relationships through our devices. For many entrepreneurs, the internet is a fast-track vehicle to success.
But the way this two-dimensional world affects our brains and psychological wellbeing divides opinion. Is our accelerated culture turning us into lonely, impatient and digitally preoccupied human beings? Or is it how we interact with the cyber world that matters?
The mind and emotions
Ever since Donald Hebb stated that ‘cells that fire together, wire together’ as a result of experience, other psychologists have accepted the notion of plasticity in our brains. In other words, our grey matter will mould and adapt to whatever environment it’s in.
Fast-forward 20 years and our current rapid fire culture is becoming increasingly screen-based.
A report by OFCOM found that internet users now spend double the amount of time online compared to 10 years ago, they check their mobile phone every six and half minutes and 79 per cent of us even check our phones within the first 15 minutes of consciousness each day.
It begs the question of how the accelerated world impacts on our thoughts and emotions – something neuroscientist Susan Greenfield explores in her book Mind Change.
Memory of a goldfish?
While our brains are not ‘hard-wired’ for a screen-orientated existence, Greenfield explains that their plasticity allows us to adapt very sensitively to new technologies. She presents two arguments. One: the 2D digital world is a ‘welcoming hearth’ in the 21st Century lifestyle that we are fully capable of balancing with the 3D world.
And two: ‘Digital Natives’ (children who grew up in the digital age) and ‘Digital Migrants’ (adults who have migrated to the digital world) are prone to displaying addictive behaviours towards their devices.
Twenty-four per cent of US adult social media users reported missing out on ‘key moments in their lives’ in 2012 due to updating their social media accounts. And Greenfield suggests that disturbingly, the digital generation may have lower empathy and shorter attention spans too.
The accelerated culture has both pros and cons. Technology has empowered entrepreneurs to ‘act fast’ and never miss an opportunity. But as we take in information and do business through our devices, researchers such as Ziming Liu who published Reading Behaviour in the digital environment, suggest that it encourages us to carry out ‘keyword spotting, one-time reading’ and selective reading. Screen reading also exposes us to potential distractors such as hyperlinks, which can lead to decreased productivity and poorer sustained attention.
Then we have our friend Google – a digital tool that empowers us in many ways. But as Betsy Sparrow et al found, people are less capable of recalling information if they know they’ll have access to it at a later date.
Ok, so it might be a bit crude to apply the findings of this study directly to the digital context. But it definitely raises questions about the ability of ‘Generation Google’ to retain information. Especially when they know an abundance of information can be handed to them on a digital ‘plate’.
Have a little patience
The jury is still out on the link between social media use and wellbeing. Robert Kraut, a Professor of Human-Computer Interaction and Moira Burke – an employee at Facebook – found some positive effects for people who’d recently lost a job and were actively using Facebook to find new work.
On the flip side, in Mind Change, Greenfield highlights that the need for ‘instant gratification’ through social sites can lead to ‘addiction’. Others claim the accelerated culture creates a generation who ‘don’t have to wait for anything’. That video that’s taking five seconds longer to upload? Yep, you understand.
The 2D world vs. the 3D world
The over-consumption of technology is so topical now; it’s led to an array of new buzzwords. Research psychologist Dr Larry Rosen claims the accelerated culture is responsible for ‘iDisorder’ – technology-induced symptoms such as stress, insomnia and a compulsion to ‘check in with all of your technology’.
Then you have the popular psychology headlines and self-help books that urge us to take a digital detox, or switch off and meditate to boost our immunity to the potential dangers of the digital world. The mindfulness app, Headspace has more than half a million registered users alone.
Rohan Gunatillake, founder of the buddify meditation app says we’re getting the digital argument wrong: "There is a common misconception that the only way to be mindful when it comes to technology is to turn everything off. While taking a break from our divides can be very useful from time to time, if we continue to consider our digital lives as being the ‘anti-mindfulness’ we are only going to get ourselves in real trouble. Technology has to be part of the solution, not the problem."
Nellie Huang, social media expert and founder of travel blog WildJunket sums it up pretty well: "Technology may have changed our lives in many ways, [but] it has also taken away the personal elements in our lives. Engaging with people on a personal level is so essential to our wellbeing. I really believe in disconnecting to reconnect."
Our accelerated culture isn’t slowing down any time soon. And wherever you stand in the digital debate, technology will continue to lure us into the powerful 2D world.
Let’s just make sure we don’t miss out on the enriching experiences of the real one.