Over the annuls of history, numerous products were successful at one thing but created unanticipated impacts.
Invented in 1885, Coca-Cola made people feel good. It was billed as a “brain tonic and intellectual beverage.” It initially contained cocaine. It was addictive. Cocaine amounts were reduced over the years and eventually eliminated by the late 1920s.
DDT was billed as a miracle insecticide. It was promoted by the government and industry for many applications. It was used by farmers and mosquito control authorities. It was popular because it worked. Over time, thanks to the work of Rachel Carlson and many others, we learned that it was leading to rapid declines of numerous birds, such eagles, pelicans and peregrine falcons. Turns out that DDT persists in the environment for a long time and has many harmful impacts likely to all living creatures. Its use was largely banned in the 1970s. We have seen a significant rebound in these bird populations.
I could list many more products that had to be pulled off the market. You get the point. Something that is really good in some ways can be problematic in others.
Recently, I’ve been applying this concept to our being hyper-connected to the digital realm. Since at least the 1980s, we’ve each year become more reliant, some would say addicted, to the internet and its various products.
Like the products described above, the internet has offered so many benefits. Obviously, we have more data at our fingertips. Some of the data is accurate, some not. It has made so many things we do more efficient. We use far less paper and energy to do many tasks. All in all, it has produced many substantial improvements to our life and perhaps even the environment.
But is it a little like Coca-Cola or DDT in that there are negative impacts? Impacts that are real and perhaps warrant mitigation? Can such potential impacts even be mitigated?
I’ve recently been asking myself was I happier pre-internet or post internet? I don’t really know when the pre-internet period was. Personally, I’ve experienced a gradual increase in screen time since the 1980’s. I sense I was happier and felt more connected “pre-internet,” whenever that was. I think I sought out more in person contact and human connections. More walks, more outside, more reading, more hiking, more just sitting around with friends and listening to music and talking. I had more time.
My generation may be the last that can attempt to answer the pre-internet versus post-internet question. Does my generation have a unique responsibility to share our insights?
Has screen time eroded my doing the things listed above? Aren’t those things important to feeding community, feeding one’s soul? Are we now happier? If not, why do we surf more, binge more, post more?
Has this addictive, consumptive technology just snuck up on us so we didn’t note the changes in our world, our community and our personal happiness?
Since humans evolved in a tribal setting, do we need in person contact and support to feel comfortable? In other words, is the virtual world able to give us what we need as a species to thrive? Is it that our virtual world doesn’t meet our habitat and evolutionary needs? Animals in degraded habitat experience stress. It isn’t just happiness; it is health as well. Persistent stress leads to health declines.
But it is not just a question of whether we are as happy and healthy. Has it affected our safety?
I really feel less connected to my countrymen. Now 30 to 40 percent of my countrymen concern me. The digital realm has accelerated that. There are so many people I feel like I have to be careful what I talk about for fear they will shut down. Facebook technologies feed you more of what you have consumed in the past. If you consume content about birds, you get more content about birds. That seems harmless. But if you consume extreme political or hateful content, you may get more, similar extreme or hateful content. That is proving to NOT be harmless. It may be radicalizing people. Since they live in an often virtual, tailor-made world of supporters, it appears to embolden them to act out on fringe theories.
I don’t have answers. I’m just sharing thoughts. One step would be for Facebook and other social media platforms to stop engineering what we are exposed to. Facebook should stop trying to figure out what we want to see, especially for content that will lead to radicalization. We are divided enough as it is!
Food for thought.
I welcome feedback. I may be missing something; I probably am…
If you enjoy having your world paradigm challenged a bit, you might enjoy “Pauline” and “Beach” in my new novel, The Sommières Sun. Check it out.