Ubiquitous digital media offer potent rewards—but at the price of eroding our sensory and social capacities.
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 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.
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. <…> 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. <…>
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.
Sensing pleasure but not satiation, we spend more and more time online. This is a feature, not a bug.
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. <…>
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. <…>
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 excerpts from “The Medium Is the Menace”, City Journal, Winter 2022.