Here's a question that should shake up your 20th-century-born-and-raised mind for a couple of minutes: How are boom boxes, cathode-ray tubes, CDs, DVDs, encyclopedia sets, incandescent light bulbs, phone lines, letter writing, newspapers, phone books, typewriters, video stores and wristwatches all similar?
These once ubiquitous items are all on their way to extinction—provided they haven't already been pushed over the cliff. They've been made increasingly obsolete by 2.0 this and 3.0 that—and we're hurtling toward 10.0.
Stressing Over Silicon
The way of life we knew even 15 years ago is outmoded, outdated and gobbled up like a dog's Milk-Bone biscuit—faster than at any other time in history. It was only about 1995 when the Internet—now up to at least 7 trillion web pages—was first becoming part of our lives. Today we feel as if we cannot live without it. And though YouTube was launched in 2005, it has since taken over the known universe. According to mashable.com, the world now uploads at least 20 hours of video to the site every minute. That's more than three years of footage every day. The first U.S. TV network, NBC, would have had to start broadcasting round the clock in the year 810 AD—shortly after Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the West—to air all the new YouTube footage posted just last year.
And if that's not enough technological revolution for you, then consider the fact that Apple has facilitated more than 3 billion iPhone app downloads in less than four years. Or that there's already been an estimated 900-plus exabytes of new information produced this year. If you need a point of reference for that last one, in 2006 there were 161 exabytes of new data, which is about 3 million times the information contained in every book ever written.
Is your head spinning yet? Mine has been for, oh, three years now.
Then, of course, there's MySpace, Facebook and a hundred other social networks, all created within the last decade. Six years into its infancy, Facebook has already garnered more than 500 million users—and actually talking to your friends is becoming a thing of the past as a result. In a recent mtvU/halfofus.com video, a group of young students say they communicate so often through Facebook that they struggle to communicate in person. They themselves say they're now socially awkward. And they're not the only ones. Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford University's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, says, "More and more, life is resembling the chat room. We're paying a price in terms of our cognitive life because of this virtual lifestyle."
We're also paying an emotional price.
Author Anna Jane Grossman, who recently released Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once Common Things Passing Us By, told ABC's Nightline, "I'm 30 years old, and I feel already like time is going so quickly and everything is so different than it was. Ten years ago I didn't have a cell phone, I don't think I had a laptop and I still listened to a Walkman. All of those things now seem like so ancient history. … I would say that we're losing a certain sense of personal touch and a certain sense of real human connection. … It makes me wonder how people are going to develop differently. If we don't talk on phones and have long telephone conversations like we used to, well is that going to change how we have conversations in general?"
Assessing Our Own Assimilation
While Ms. Grossman, those students in that video I mentioned and researchers around the world can see how their lives and relationships have changed just as surely as VCRs gave way to DVD players which are giving way to Blu-ray, I wonder if we can. Actually, I wonder if any of us can accurately see all the ways in which we have been affected by the Internet, smartphones and the host of electronic gadgets that now surround us like a phalanx of, well, Charlemagne's soldiers.
In many ways we're like frogs in water that's growing hotter, unaware of how we're being "boiled" since memories of our lives before Internet 1.0 can be murky at best. And were we ever aware of how our brains responded to folded maps as opposed to TomToms in the first place? Or what our minds and hearts were like before we checked our e-mail nearly 37 times an hour, as research shows that many people now do?
Doctors at the University of California, San Diego, have examined how our streaming digital feeds of constant infotainment are affecting our empathy and ability to make wise choices. Rather than being outraged or even mildly upset by news of murders, suffering, assaults, child abuse or war, for example, many people have virtually no response at all. The UCSD study reads, "The rapidity of attention-requiring information, which hallmarks the digital age, might reduce the frequency of full experience of emotions, with potentially negative consequences." And the study's co-author, Dr. Antonio Damasio, adds, "I'm worried about what is happening in the abrupt juxtapositions that you find, for example, in the news. Perhaps all we can say is, 'not so fast.'"
London-based psychologist Felix Economakis, who specializes in the effects of stress, has equally disturbing news regarding the infotainment stream: "Our poor brains are definitely suffering information overload. Technology is making quantum leaps, bombarding us with new things to focus on, but we have not been able to catch up and adapt. Our brains' attention levels are finite. When everything is screaming at us, we start withdrawing so that normally nice people become unempathetic."
I've seen Economakis' description in action. Even in myself.
The Book of Daniel prophesies that "many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased." Did the old prophet have our Internet-age in mind? With the recent invention of information overload, we certainly do run, and often in circles. And though we can't stop the world's technological avalanche, we can echo Damasio's words, "Not so fast!" We can shut down the stream long enough to catch our breath. We can decide that we really don't need to see all 20 hours of video that was just uploaded 60 seconds ago. Maybe we can even talk to someone face-to-face.