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The Medium Is the Menace

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from the magazine

The Medium Is the Menace

Ubiquitous digital media offer potent rewards—but at the price of eroding our sensory and social capacities. Winter 2022
Technology and Innovation
The Social Order

The media theorist Marshall McLuhan held that every medium constitutes an extension of our physical or mental faculties. The hammer extends our fist, the spear our teeth, the hut our skin, the wheel our feet—and electronic media our central nervous system. By broadening human intellectual and social faculties far beyond our natural abilities, the Internet has given us incredible benefits. Never before could humans augment their knowledge of any subject matter so quickly and easily; never before have people had so many contacts.

But everything comes at a price. Amplified abilities may provide new powers, but they also lead, in McLuhan’s terms, to the “numbing” and “amputation” of organs and skills formerly responsible for certain tasks. A phone’s digital memory remembers phone numbers for us, but it cuts off the part of our organic memory responsible for basic recall. Machines do many things much more efficiently than people once did, but they atrophy bodily functions, disrupting not only the preexisting sensorium but also old physical skills and social habits. Ubiquitous digital media, with their new reward system, threaten even more troubling changes.

Evaluating the gains and losses that new media produce is an old tradition. In Plato’s Phaedrus, god-inventor Theuth brought a gift of letters, which he created for people, to King Thamus for approval. Theuth claimed that writing would make the Egyptians wiser and improve their memory. Thamus replied that writing would actually cause forgetfulness because people would “not remember of themselves”—they would rely on “the external written characters” instead of their memories. Writing would become “an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence.” People would learn a lot but know nothing. They would appear wise know-it-alls but lack real wisdom.

Both mythological figures proved right. If devices cause the “organic” memory to deteriorate, as Thamus warned, our “practical” memory has also improved beyond measure, supporting Theuth’s stance. You no longer plausibly can fail to get in touch with somebody just because you forgot his phone number or can fail to wish a friend a happy birthday because you couldn’t remember the date. Some personal faculties have deteriorated, yes; but media are much better at performing functions that we previously did physically.

The discussion of the merits and demerits of technology has continued ever since Plato. It has flared up recently, as the pace of technological change has accelerated. Writing took millennia to spread; the Internet conquered the planet in decades. The speed has amplified the shock, making the arguments of the techno-skeptic Thamus more tangible. In the 1990s, the Internet was praised as a great repository of knowledge. In the 2000s, it was hailed as an environment of free communication. But since the 2010s, it has often been considered a danger—both to people and institutions.

The logic of our faculties’ migration into media, extended far enough, leads to a complete human resettling into media. The more our capabilities migrate to media, the more our power grows over our physical and social environments—and the more essential it is to improve the potency of our media. The migration of physical abilities to, say, a stone ax dealt with only a tiny fraction of our needs. The Internet, by contrast, caters to all human collective and personal activities.

Indeed, we are nearly all the way there, save for some physical daily routines. Media are increasingly taking over our body’s work to accomplish those physical and intellectual tasks better and faster, which frees up time to spend on—what else?—consuming and developing media. As McLuhan said, “[M]an becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world.” In exchange for developing them, media offer us “nectar” in the form of conveniences of all sorts. Convenience can make humans dependent, however; and in the digital universe, this can certainly seem at times like a loss of freedom and independence.

We’re not just spending time on the Internet. We are investing time in its improvement. If value in digital capitalism is created in the very process of a platform’s use, then we are all working for digital capitalism. Every time we click a link, react to a story, or share it with others, we help the Internet to evolve, like a bee pollinating flowers, in McLuhan’s formulation. Improving the relevance of online content, our day-and-night labor of clicks enhances the Internet’s convenience for us, which, in turn, strengthens its power over us, making us develop its protocols and devices. Having collapsed the space between people—as well as between people and knowledge—the Internet has freed up the time formerly needed to cover that space. In exchange for this service, the Internet expropriates our time.

Illustration by Ryan Peltier

All this labor is changing us. Digital media alter not only our physical skills but also our brain’s physiology. The human brain contains an estimated 100 billion neurons, each connected to others by hundreds of synapses. Brain activity consists of the electrochemical “firing” of neural circuits. Repeated experiences reinforce the burned-through links; neurons that fire together wire together. This electrochemical blueprint of our thoughts and feelings, the mechanism about which we still have only a limited understanding, creates a self-adjusting neural network: a natural supercomputer.

Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book, The Shallows, compiles research showing what the Internet is doing to our brains. Reading books and reading online hypertext trigger “firing” in different brain regions. Book-reading activates regions responsible for speech, memorizing, and processing visual information. Hypertext “reading” activates the brain regions responsible for problem-solving and decision-making.

As Carr notes, this might be beneficial for elderly people. Before the Internet, they tended to face few intellectual challenges and make few new acquaintances. Now they make hundreds of micro-decisions: To click or not to click? To like or not to like? To comment or not to comment? This mental labor, similar to solving simple puzzles, lasts the entire time a person is online. It keeps the brain alert and alive at the physiological level, forcing it to “fire up” new synapses. In the offline world, the elderly simply never had such a massive torrent of mental micro-tasks.

Such exercise rewards the brain with hormonal pleasures related to curiosity and socialization—important parts of the survival code of a social animal. Curiosity leads us to find food and territory, while socialization ensures propagation and protection. We feel elated when we reveal something interesting (as expressed in Archimedes’ “Eureka!”) or receive credit (what Hegel called the “struggle for recognition”).

To capture more of our time and engagement, the Internet has appropriated our hormonal stimuli by offering opportunities for curiosity and socialization that we would never have found offline. It offers the flow of micro-stimuli in exchange for our engagement. When a user sees a reaction from others, thoughtfully facilitated by social media designers, the brain receives a hit of dopamine, a neurotransmitter bringing pleasure to reward certain behavior. According to a study at the UCLA brain-mapping center, an fMRI scanner shows “significantly greater activation in parts of the brain’s reward circuitry” when teenagers see “likes” given to their pictures. A scan observed neuro-patterns similar to those when a person sees the pictures of loved ones or wins money. The pleasure is minuscule and almost unrecognizable, but the desire to get another hit of dopamine keeps us online; we resemble the gambler constantly pushing the handle of the slot machine in the hope for the next reward.

“Sensing pleasure but not satiation, we spend more and more time online. This is a feature, not a bug.”

Another aspect of the same “struggle for response” is known to psychologists as FOMO—Fear of Missing Out. Evolution made people fear not staying in touch with others, not knowing what they know, not getting recognition, not getting a sufficient share of social grooming. This fear not only maintains constant users’ online activity but leads them to intensify this activity in pursuit of a better response.

Instant gratification for online activity drives the user engagement that Internet platforms require to be profitable. But when practiced almost eight hours per day (the time spent by an average American online), this behavior also forms a habit—a neuro-disposition, adjusted to certain interactions with the world. The brain rewires itself, enjoying instant reward for little effort.

For older people, the benefits may outweigh the damage. Their newly obtained devotion to the online environment is unlikely to cause serious harm to their life offline. For everyone else, though, the realignment of behavioral stimuli to digital stimulation with micro-rewards may endanger their well-being and even physical safety.

The ease of a click gives users instant access to people, knowledge—and rewards. These rewards change people’s sensory and social settings, causing the most significant, yet invisible, harm associated with the Internet. In the physical world, rewards were naturally delayed and demanded greater effort, to which the brain was accustomed. The delayed reward was typically well deserved, and obtaining it provided a stronger, more distinct pleasure. The hormonal rewards from food, sex, curiosity, comfort, socialization, and creativity brought vivid excitements. The link between effort and reward was often multilayered, too. For example, sex required the hard labor of building relationships, but with that could come love and the comfort of marriage. Reading a Dostoyevsky book took serious mental effort but delivered the joy of an intellectual epiphany and the benefits of status socialization.

Unlike rewards in the physical world, the reward of a click is as trifling as the effort expended. The low quality incites a huge demand for quantity: sensing a hint of pleasure but never satiation, people spend more and more time online. This is a feature, not a bug: the social media platform benefits from our increased engagement with it, which, in the material form of personal data, is expropriated, commodified, and profited from.

Billions of users get used to choosing smaller immediate rewards over larger delayed gratification. In psychology, this choice is associated with the deficit of self-control. Matched with constantly produced but never satiating hits of micro-pleasure, this condition leads to a growing attachment to its source—what is more commonly known as digital addiction. Since online activity physically is almost effortless and often requires just a click, it has no physical limitation and tends to capture a user’s available time.

A study showed that about 5 percent of social media users in the observed group were at high risk of addiction. There were 4.55 billion social media users in the world in October 2021. Five percent makes 227.5 million—that many people are at risk of SNS (social-network sites) addiction, a phenomenon that psychiatrists are now considering recognizing as a mental-health disorder. To compare: the UN reported in 2020 that 35 million people in the world were suffering from drug-abuse disorders. The rate of addiction risk (5 percent) among the digital population is higher than the share of people using cannabis (4 percent of the world population) or nonmedical opioids (1.2 percent).

Those managing to avoid the risk of addiction do not avoid the larger risk of a critical detachment from physical reality. When you adjust to existing in the digital world, you lose the endurance, diligence, and resilience needed to thrive in the physical world. Reading loss, a shrinking attention span, and weaker concentration are only superficial manifestations of the brain’s adaptation to the click’s instant reward. The transformation goes deeper: if the moral principles of the physical world reward you for what you do, the moral principles of the digital world reward you for who you are—for simply indicating your presence. Thanks to digital media, your mere existence online is now considered an effort, meriting a reward. We have yet to see the true depths of this moral transformation.

Technological development—from the cultivation of fire to the invention of the hammer, the wheel, and the remote control—has always sought to reduce the effort needed to receive rewards. The difference today is that the transition from the physical world to the digital world is happening with astonishing rapidity. The shift from nomadic to sedentary culture took millennia; the migration from villages to cities took centuries; the resettling onto the Internet will take about 70 years.

But present-day humans will have to live in both worlds for a while, even as one intrudes on the other. The older generations living today—digital immigrants—developed their basic physical skills before the Internet. Millennials, on the other hand, became the first digital natives: they were socialized in an environment that rewards not effort but mere presence expressed by clicks. Since clicks are so easy to make, the exposition of people’s presence to one another becomes enormous. The reward of recognition, promised by a click, sinks in an incredible noise. In the old physical world, people competed through the intensity of effort; in the new digital world, they compete by the intensity of presence. Hence the movement toward extreme opinions, rage on social media, and political polarization, only natural in a society that rewards the intensity of self-identification more readily than it rewards effort.

This development affects the entire society across generations. But older people remember when physical restrictions and face-to-face communication imposed both positive and negative incentives not to exaggerate personal differences. Mitigating differences and compromising were a winning, or at least more or less safe, strategy in the physical world. In the digital realm, the active signaling of an identity is the condition of successful socialization. Studies show that digitalization of social networking not only intensified peer pressure but also confused social and physical reality for younger people.

If digital immigrants firmly distinguish the old physical world from the new digital world, for digital natives it’s all a single hybrid reality where offline activities and old-fashioned face-to-face communications are the somewhat disturbing, but so far unavoidable, continuations of a more comfortable digital existence. Compared with the digital world, which confers instant rewards for a mere click, the physical world requires too much effort. Since more and more activities migrate into digital, digital natives increasingly withdraw from the physical, the most unpleasant part of their hybrid reality. The hybrid reality contributes to the so-called delayed adulthood: millennials and Generation Zers have less or later sex, start fewer families, drive fewer cars, leave parental homes later (if at all), and so on.

Interestingly, instead of the terms “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” that Marc Prensky introduced in 2001, David S. White and Alison Le Cornu suggested in 2011 the terms “visitors” and “residents” as better descriptions of different people’s (and generations’) engagement with new technologies. Indeed, younger generations reside in the digital, while predigital generations just visit it, though increasingly often. However, the opposite is also true: digital residents just visit the real world for some residual needs, but they always hurry to return to the digital environment.

The old world is still putting up a fight. Legacy systems of family upbringing and education still require sizable effort in exchange for delayed rewards. But such a balance is unnatural for digital natives. Parents bribe their children with tablets to keep them entertained and buy themselves some time. The touchscreen devices stimulate children’s curiosity with the click’s irresistible instant reward and thus shape their sensorium and their moral evolution.

Digital natives are fit for their new environment but not for the old one. Coaches complain that teenagers are unable to hold a hockey stick or do pull-ups. Digital natives’ peripheral vision—required for safety in physical space—is deteriorating. With these deficits come advantages in the digital realm. The eye is adjusting to tunnel vision—a digital native can see on-screen details that a digital immigrant can’t see. When playing video games, digital immigrants still instinctively dodge bullets or blows, but digital natives do not. Their bodies don’t perceive an imaginary digital threat as a real one, which is only logical. Their sensorium has readjusted to ignore fake digital threats that simulate physical ones. No need for an instinctive fear of heights or trauma: in the digital world, even death can be overcome by re-spawning. Yet what will happen when millions of young people with poor grip strength, peripheral blindness, and no instinctive fear of collision start, say, driving cars? Will media evolution be there in time to replace drivers with autopilots in self-driving vehicles?

The social and political worlds are adapting, too. The click’s instant reward has already been changing the structure of content packaging. The classic template of “setting-culmination-resolution,” which used to be the structure of the completed narrative and hence of many organized activities, is becoming too time-consuming and bulky. Linear reading of large, complete chunks of information might have required time and effort but helped develop rational, abstract, and deliberate thinking. It is being replaced with the flow of identity-signaling on Twitter and TikTok. And while the mainstream media hurry to warn that democracy is in danger, it is the overwhelming surplus of direct democracy that truly threatens the old democratic order. A child of the printing press, representative democracy, which was based on rational deliberation and institutions, collapses under the pressure of direct democracy based on digital torrents of instant identity signaling.

Recent social and political upheavals reflect this conflict between people whose sensorium, moral principles, and culture are based on either the delayed or instant rewards offered, respectively, by old and new media. Trying to hem in digital youth within the old constraints of delayed reward would require enormous effort and contradict the logic of the digital environment. Digital abstention might be an attractive boutique phenomenon, and some people even manage to escape social media. But in general, the human species has already been altering its morality, neurophysiology, and sensorium to resettle into the digital environment. The process is massive and seemingly irreversible.

Illustration by Ryan Peltier

In 2014, Clay Shirky, a prominent new-media theorist, published in the Washington Post an interesting reflection on his failed resistance to digital technology. For a long time, Shirky had let his students use gadgets in class, thinking that it would be embarrassing to ban the very subject he was studying. He thought that a good professor teaching an interesting course could keep his students focused. But he eventually realized that he could not. No lecture about the use of the telegraph during the Crimean War could rival a smartphone’s flashing, vibrating notification that your ex just posted a new photo. Shirky tried to comfort teachers and parents, assuring them that it was not their fault that they were losing their kids to gadgets; the entire tech industry—the entire process of media evolution—was working against them. New media recruit the best engineers, investors, scientists, and marketers to make their products more engaging. The only way to defeat gadgets in the fight for attention, he concluded, is to ban them.

“Children should be taught to manipulate toys, draw, read and write, and use electronic and digital media—in that order.”

Could success in the physical world require curtailing the technologies necessary for existing in the digital world? And is that even doable? Digital media have annihilated space and made negligible the efforts required for socialization. Being social animals, we were bound to fall into this honeypot that we had built for ourselves. The key to digital resistance lies not in neo-Luddism but in media awareness. Online, our consumption is also our labor. It does not require special effort, but it does require our time. Media literacy is, first and foremost, time management. Media literacy is the ability not to use media.

Digital detox is fast becoming a healthy lifestyle trend. Various digital detox services are already considered promising for venture investment, and an entire industry will doubtless emerge. But digital detox will deal with a body that the Internet has already damaged. To protect the skills and functions still required for people to survive in the physical world from digital influence, one should consider limiting digital consumption for children as they form the basic skills needed for the physical world.

In biology, the concept of biogenetic or embryonic recapitulation implies that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—an individual repeats the evolution of its species. For example, the human embryo develops features resembling gill arches, a tail, and so on. Modern biology does not recognize recapitulation as a law, but this idea might provide a useful metaphor.

The principle of media recapitulation might be described as follows. To become a resourceful individual adapted to the modern reality of media consumption, a child has to go through all the basic stages of the species’ media evolution through oral, literate, print, and digital eras. Children, that is, should be taught step-by-step to manipulate toys, draw, read and write, and use electronic and digital media—only in that historically established order. Exposure to next-stage media, if allowed prematurely, would interfere with mastering the earlier skills. No rattle, coloring book, or adventure novel can compete with a digital device’s instant reward. If newer media are introduced into a child’s life before older media, they inhibit the child’s sensory, mental, moral, and emotional development. If a child learns how to use a touchscreen before reading, the touchscreen’s appeal and speed of reward will make him a less able reader. The child’s neurons will already be wired for an instant reward that no book can provide.

Just as media literacy means time management, media recapitulation essentially means age-based media-access management. Responsible adults should identify the age ranges for giving a child access to each new medium: playing with toys, listening to reading aloud, independent reading, TV, gadgets, video games, time-limited access to the Internet, and, eventually, unlimited access to the Internet with their own device. Media recapitulation will not solve the problem of the click’s instant reward, but it could render constructive the essentially negative idea of the digital ban. Media recapitulation turns a ban into access—step-by-step access, based on the historical dynamic of media’s influence on human neurophysiology, sensorium, and social skills.

Photo: Dilok Klaisataporn/iStock

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