I don’t want to start this piece by describing today’s society to you. You can see it for yourself.
If you’re young enough not to know the difference, it won’t seem strange to you. If you, like me, are old enough to have lived in a different time, today’s society will seem to you so different to what you grew up in as to be barely recognizable.
I have to admit to feeling sometimes totally disoriented in today’s society. It seems so weird sometimes, bizarre, surreal. I wonder if this is how all generations feel or if the world is changing faster than it did in the past.
Do you remember the days before cell phones? It wasn’t even that long ago. I remember having only four channels on my TV set and the internet not even being something I could conceive of… I’m not even middle-aged yet, and look at where we are now!
In the days before the dawn of the internet, if you had a question, you had two choices: you looked up the answer in a book (which you either had or you didn’t), or you asked someone. If you couldn’t get your answer, you had to search it out, and it would take time – you had to be patient.
In today’s society, Google is God: you have any question and the all-knowing, all-seeing, ever-present one will give you an immediate answer. You would think, with such easy access to an inexhaustible supply of information, people would be getting more and more intelligent… So how come the opposite seems to be happening?
Take a look at any respected 19th century, 18th century, medieval writer and just look at what they achieved. Look at how learned they were and think about the resources they had. What’s happening in today’s society? We have more resources and easier access than ever before, and yet we seem to be getting dumber by the day.
1. Multitasking and constant distraction
Multitasking is often espoused as a positive thing and something we should be proud of as a skill. However, multitasking doesn’t have a positive impact on the brain or the health. According to Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, when people think they are multitasking, what they’re actually doing is just switching their focus rapidly from one object to another.
Multi-tasking, like drugs such as cocaine, gets the brain into a dopamine addiction feedback loop. This means the brain gets a chemical reward every time it switches focus to something new, meaning that it’s far less stimulating to stay focused on one task, regardless of how worthy or important it is, than it is to switch between several new trivialities.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain is biased toward novelty-seeking and will always prefer something new to concentrating enough on something to think it through properly.
This all has a major cognitive cost. Professor of psychology Glenn Wilson claims that you lose 10% of your effective IQ just from being distracted by a single e-mail when you’re trying to complete a task. Just think of how many distractions you are dealing with per task, and consider how much brain power you are losing.
What’s more, multitasking causes an increase in the stress hormone cortisol and in adrenaline, causing mental confusion and having an adverse impact on overall physical health.
2. Superficial knowledge
How much of what you read online do you actually absorb? Test someone you know and ask them to test you. Try to explain in depth the content of an article you read recently, making sure that all the information and statistics are correct. Chances are, you’ll discover that you don’t really know what you think you know.
This happened to me when I met someone last year who started asking me to qualify the things I said with adequate reasoning and evidence. I realized that I had a lot of opinions that I thought were based on solid foundations, but somehow I couldn’t justify any of them satisfactorily.
I would start trying to make an argument and get lost somewhere in the middle, realizing that I couldn’t explain myself. I was horrified at how much I had let my brain go soft and how much time I’d wasted reading information that I wasn’t retaining.
3. The information economy
If you hadn’t noticed yet, we’ve moved into the age of the information economy. Information, in today’s society, is a commodity like any other, and, as a result, it’s being marketed like any other product. Information has to be sensational, if you, the consumer, with your already over-stimulated dopamine circuit, is going to be interested in looking at it.
The stimulus has to be stronger and stronger to give you your fix. As is the case with the music and film industries, what appeals to the masses is no indication of quality – in fact, it’s often an inverse indication. Information has started to become like music and films in that it’s manipulated to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
4. Addiction to impact
How many people do you notice online that clearly comment on and/or share stories without actually reading the content? You may have been guilty of it yourself. In today’s society, people are addicted to impact.
For them to be interested in an article, the headline has to make a big impact, and that’s often the only thing that the people reading care about, i.e., the attitude or position that an article is taking.
What’s more, people in today’s society are making commodities for themselves. In the exact same way as they take photoshopped-beyond-recognition selfies, presenting themselves as a fantasy, they’re attaching themselves to particular images and ideas and then selling themselves as a package.
I am X style of music, I am liberal, I am alt-right, I am vegan, I am spiritual… When people begin attaching their identities to certain ideas we get into dangerous territory because it means you refuse to entertain any other idea or enter into discussion – this is the definition of stupidity.
In today’s society, information is like everything else – disposable. Easy come, easy go. You read an article, you watch a video of a cat, you look at a selfie, you watch a video of a dog… you forget the article. In the end, you value none of this except for the moment that you’re engaged, and in the next moment, you’ve forgotten it.
At most, you share one of them to identify yourself with it and see how many likes you get. It’s a worrying state of affairs, and who knows where it’s all going and if we can save ourselves.
Do you agree with the views in this article? What do you think – is today’s society making us dumber and is there any way out?
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