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In what ways is immersion in digital technologies changing us as humans?Adbusters-89-ihuman-s

Scientists at the University of California recently discovered that the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of information per day. A study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation came to the similar conclusion that 8–18-year-old Americans spend an average of seven-and-a-half hours a day consuming media – an increase of more than an hour over the past five years. The same study also found that heavy users of media are more likely to report being “often sad or unhappy.” A study published in the March 2010 issue of the Psychological Bulletin reports that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive thoughts and behavior – and decreased empathy and pro-social behavior – in youths. Faced with all this, Adbusters Contributing Editor Micah White asked leading digital luminaries, ecopsychologists and philosophers three penetrating questions.

We will become considerably more networked, living mainly in terms of proxy encounters. Inevitably hive behaviors will supplant acts of individual initiative. We will become far more of a symbol-trading species than we already are. The data stream, already overwhelming, will be managed by an array of programs and applications. What used to be a knowledge of facts and processes will become a knowledge of the most efficient ways to use those highly developed prosthetic resources. Subjective individualism, waning as an ideal for decades now, will become nearly extinct. We will tend toward electronic collectivism, a kind of electronically aggregated sense of identity.

I’m one of those people who believes there is something vital about getting our hands in the soil and learning the habits of plants and animals. These days that makes me old-fashioned, but there are good reasons to be alarmed about the replacement of the natural world as our everyday context with a digital one. There is, for example, a good deal of scholarly thought and research on the childhood need to be immersed in nature. The gist of this scholarship is that when children are fed a diet of video games instead of real-life frogs and bugs they are deprived of crucial nutrients for their psychological and spiritual development. These kids grow up to be alienated adults who do not know how they fit into the big picture and who are less likely to care about ecological issues. Having unstructured childhood experiences in wild nature plays a central role in the making of environmental activists, whereas having only electronic information about the plight of the planet actually tends to turn people away from environmental activism.

In many ways the digital age suits us – humans are highly sociable, novelty seeking, ever exploring and highly visual. Yet wedding ourselves to technology fully immerses us in a narrowed world where values and choices are circumscribed. The numeric, computational, instant and measurable are valued. The mysterious, messy and awkward biological realms are degraded. By living too completely in a computer-centric digital world, we risk becoming sated with the most faceless, thinnest means of communication ever invented. We also risk becoming shallow thinkers, unable to create or contemplate in the deepest senses of the words. I’m concerned about the drying up of our inner lives, the loss of our ability to imagine, to daydream, to wrestle with a problem, to intuit.

Researchers from Stanford have shown that our brains have not evolved enough for us to be able to pick apart the difference between what we see on screens and what we see in front of us. We haven’t physically evolved as fast as our culture has, so media “is” reality.

In virtual worlds, digital technology actually replaces your world. You can build the entire world the way you want it! You can have a new body, new friends and a new home. Most people misunderstand these “games” and overlook them. But I am convinced that a small nation-state of psychologists needs to research these worlds because they are much like the “New World,” the Americas, in the late 1400s. Something big is about to happen there – new economies, social interactions, education and ways of living. It might sound implausible, but I think we have another 50 years before this “virtual continent” starts seriously impacting how you and I live.

The most glaring effect is the neglect of traditional face-to-face communication. Young digital natives are training their brains for technological expertise but are not developing neural networks that modulate the ability to maintain eye contact during a conversation, recognize non-verbal cues, and perceive and convey empathy.

Yes, there is a strong connection, but which came first? Did the destruction of nature cause game developers and special effects wizards to want to create new and fantastic worlds? Or has the rise of sophisticated digital imagery, immersive virtual reality and augmented reality caused us to devalue real nature and thus destroy it? The irony is that cutting-edge technologies are being used to create pastoral environments like the Shire in The Lord of the Rings (both in Peter Jackson’s movies and the online role-playing game), which appear to be lush and untouched by the dirty hands of humankind.

Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms,

We are demystifying the world via technology – GPS, Google Earth, etc. – digesting it through images and assumptions of access. Less and less do we labor in ways that bind us to our environment. We have outsourced the physical world, made it a kind of recreation area (I’m talking about the privileged West here). A whole generation of kids spends more time playing games in virtual environments than on terra firma. How can our post-postmodern ways of living not modify our assumptions about nature as the basis of all things, the “mother”? – SB

It will be a bunch of folks who have no sense of the sublime. A glimpse of the Pacific Ocean won’t impress much nor will a gaze upward at El Capitan. People will sit in Yosemite Valley with a Blackberry handy, take a picture of Half Dome and send it to one hundred buddies.

Think of the amazing visual delights offered by Avatar, a movie being seen by millions of people around the world. How can a humble home village, let alone the average two-week vacation, compare with that virtual experience? It’s possible to imagine a new generation of tourists who skip backpacking in Europe because infinite (and safer) pleasures can be had by tapping at keyboards. I wonder and worry if someday we’ll forget to value the experience of walking, of feeling our body’s interactions with the ground, wind, rain and gravity. If the natural world is devalued then it follows that we’ll destroy it. – EG

The short answer is that we ourselves will become mediated, living with the anxious sense of not being connected to what used to be primary. This will create a vicious circle – our only solace from this anxiety (aside from serotonin reuptake inhibitors, sleeping aids and intensive therapy sessions) will be to plunge more deeply into the distraction at the root of our unease. The big question for me is whether there will be any kind of “return of the repressed” kickback and what form it might take. How deeply programmed are we with the need to feel “real,” to recognize ourselves as independent selves? – SB

Well, I think it’s delusional to believe that we could ever ultimately abandon living in nature. I prefer to pay attention to thinkers in fields like environmental education, ecopsychology and socialist ecology who are trying to call our culture back (or maybe forward) to some sort of earthly sanity. There are quite hopeful trends in such fields. I think it’s going to become harder and harder down the road to interpret our psychospiritual, physical and ecological ills in terms other than our historical estrangement from the living world. The local food movement’s revolt against industrial agriculture is a good sign of where we might be heading more broadly. I would certainly take seven and a half hours in my own vegetable garden over seven and a half hours on Pandora any day. – AF

If we abandon the natural Earth in favor of an artificial, digital world, we risk becoming humanoid robots – anesthetized to one another and the world around us, immobile and unable to think for ourselves. It sounds like science fiction but look around you: “Autistic” social relations predominate. Obesity is a scourge. Ignorance is mushrooming amid floods of accessible information. And the political system is paralyzed. Could this be a new dark age? – MJ

I’ve read studies that point out that heavy internet users are depressed. But the cause and effect should be evaluated. In other words, maybe it’s that depressed people are heavy internet users. Or maybe it’s that a depressed society squeezes people into increasingly manufactured spaces. They are no longer able to make a life for themselves where they get positive reinforcement for what they are naturally good at, so they become good at something unnatural. But in what might appear a contradiction, we’re a symbolic species, a mediated species, and so in some ways this is natural for us. Digital technology is automated technology. It’s another turn of the industrial revolution. And I don’t like it because it doesn’t look sustainable. Perhaps in a couple hundred years when we have physical avatars, we’ll have the chance to pick our lives, our real lives. But I don’t see that being too good for us either. I don’t see an escape other than being careful and using technology with moderation. I like living in an inconvenient environment with no more than I need to be comfortable. Living on a boat with my wife in a brutal sea environment keeps me healthy, engages me in small communities, forces me to recognize what I use and constantly challenges me. – MSM

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