Meet Your Big Brother, Google
A study by Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers reveals that the average adult looks at his or her phone 150 times a day. That’s roughly once every ten minutes, peaking at once every six seconds between 5 and 8 PM. That’s not including the time it takes to sleep, during which a mere quarter of the population are checking their phones.
The average time spent on a web page is 10 seconds. This includes the time it takes for the web page to load, excluding the time it’s taken me to formulate this sentence.
I guess that means I’m out of time?
In my last post, I outlined the complexities of working as a humanities scholar in a digital age. The absence of collaboration and inaccessibility of printed archival material suggest that while digitisation may not be necessarily evil, it is necessary. This is because digital technology is revolutionizing every aspect of modern life: from education to transportation to health care to government.
There are some convincing arguments for digital technology. Paul Robinson, a historian and former military officer attributes the overall decline in military conflict since the Cold War to technological advancements — particularly in health care. Peter Nowak, a journalist and the author of Humans 3.0, advocates that we use digital technology to combat the media’s “mean-world syndrome,” by focusing instead on the positive. The same goes for another major side-effect of technological advancement, climate change, where “people are just tired of hearing the horror stories about the polar ice caps melting.” Focusing solely on the negative side-effects of technology, Nowak says, inevitably leads to “depression, fear, anxiety, even substance abuse.”
I myself experienced fearmongering firsthand, during an international climate change expedition called Cape Farewell. Although there were many sane, hopeful people on board, there were also a few extremists. And so, I found myself trapped on the MV Akademik Shokalskiy Russian research vessel, in the middle of the Atlantic: sixteen years old, seasick, and terrified that the world was going to end. Unless, of course, I convinced the famously Conservative population of Alberta to reduce their carbon emissions before my graduation…
The point of this digression is that although I agree with Nowak about positive reinforcement, I also believe that citizens of the twenty-first century have a right to be angry about:
- growing inequality;
- weakened social bonds;
- insecurity amongst their peers;
- a declining and unpredictable job economy;
- a lack of privacy in what is arguably becoming a surveillance society;
- an operating system that undermines their fundamental ‘humanness.’
One of the ironic things about the Internet and the Digital Revolution is that they simultaneously destroy two things: memory and forgetting. The problem with the Internet is that it doesn’t know how to remember and it doesn’t know how to forget. It is almost as if we’re in a Kafkaesque novel. Perhaps that’s another reason why you’re all so angry.
Journalist Nicholas Carr talks about the digital revolution in terms of evolutionary adaptation. Our ability to adapt to new technologies, he argues, is not necessarily a correlative of our rectitude or cognitive functioning. In fact, both he and Keen agree that digital technology is undermining our capacity for “mindful knowledge acquisition”: creative thinking, reflective thinking, critical thinking, conceptual and deep thinking — the highest forms of human thought. We are losing our ability to turn off our smartphones and reflect; we are allowing Facebook and other networking companies to determine what we think about and when we think about it — which is constantly.
Why do we do this? Much of this has to do with our primitive instinct to ‘gather’ information. Every time we learn something new, our brains release the neurological transmitter dopamine, which stimulates us to check our phones again and again. As Keen points out, this suits the networking companies just fine because they benefit tremendously from selling our data. When Kodak went out of business, one-hundred and fifty thousand people lost their jobs; when Facebook bought Instagram for 1 billion dollars, 15 people were hired. Keen raises a fairly obvious economic point: how can these networking companies fail to create jobs, and still be worth so much money? His answer: we are all working for free, and the wealth that belonged to the middle class following the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution now belongs to a handful of Silicon Valley technologists. We are the product. His reference to Kafka? We all think it’s great! We love free products!
Originally, this computer-human symbiosis was intended to have a democratizing effect. According to AOL founder Steve Case, the digital revolution has three phases:
- The AOL phase of Netscape and other foundation companies.
- Web 2.0’s Facebook and Twitter phase.
- A Digital Revolution that affects every industry from education to transportation to health care to government.
The founders and idealists believed that the Digital Revolution would obliterate the nation state, creating equality and job opportunities. Has this been the case? Certainly the Internet facilitates communication and transparency; it is also the most powerful propaganda and surveillance tool the world has ever seen. Have we really done away with the nation state, or is Google our Big Brother?