Communication used to be singular. A letter, a newspaper, a radio or television program. It was a largely one-way, edited version of certain parts of reality. Today, communications are plural: a non-stop barrage of texts, sounds, and images from all directions and at all times. Public space has been whittled away by iPads and iPhones, privacy is at a premium, and digital disturbance (what used to be called static) is everywhere.
The problem is it’s still too new to be able to say with any certainty how the digital world is impacting people and society. It’s certainly changing how we work and play and it may even be affecting our physiology and psychology as human beings. As Harriet Griffey points out in “The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world” (The Guardian, 14 October 2018):
“We check our phones every 12 minutes, often just after waking up. Always-on behaviour is harmful to long-term mental health, and we need to learn to hit the pause button.”
Digital technologies are, of course, miraculous. They are tools with enormous potential for improving lives and livelihoods. But they present several illusions. One is that we are in charge when in fact the technology dictates what we can and can’t do. Behind that technology are the platform providers: commercial entities intent on making a fast buck. Finally, privacy and security cannot be taken for granted: who is looking over your digital shoulder and what are they doing with what they see?
And what about the digital distractions offered by photo and video-sharing social networking services and by cross-platform messaging and voiceover services allied to smart phones? How did we ever manage without them? Unbelievably we did and in a not too distant past. Yet, as Harriet Griffey also comments:
“This constant fragmentation of our time and concentration has become the new normal, to which we have adapted with ease, but there is a downside: more and more experts are telling us that these interruptions and distractions have eroded our ability to concentrate.”
Studies among young children, adolescents, and adults are coming to the same conclusion. Excessive use of digital technologies is creating or at least reinforcing an inability to focus, to consider in depth, and to absorb complicated information. Time will tell, but by then it may be too late. Digital addiction will have become incurable.