Is technology making us less human?

Social networking

Computer addiction is a real concern. For some people, it is not uncommon to browse Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr for hours and hours at a time. We may not take the breaks necessary to free our brains from the LCD screen and static data.

Wallaert points out that most social networking sites are highly curated. We see a microcosm of reality, and - in Facebook's case at least - it's often a chronicle of happy moments. He says constant exposure to this subset can lead to social comparisons: 'my microcosm of the world is not as fulfilling as your microcosm'.

There's also the issue of mindless clicking. We're mesmerised by the flicker of an LCD and browsing countless blogs is commonplace. Visual networking, a phenomenon popularised by Pinterest and Instagram, cuts out even the textual information. Yet, the experts say this repetitive browsing could have a detrimental long-term effect.

Visual networking

Visual networking enables us to graze in images with minimal textual interaction

"You become less human because you're constantly isolated and with no emotional feedback, and you may start to feel depressed," says Dr Cindy Bunin, a professor who teaches parents about the effects of technology.

"Static feedback is incredibly unhealthy because your life becomes totally focused on something that gives only momentary gratification. Human beings need real physical social interaction to survive."

Small changes do help - Chrome extension 20 Cubed, for instance, can give your eyes some respite. As you browse, a pop-up reminds you to take a 20-second break every 20 minutes.

Texting and email

Texting is an immediate form of communication. We can get right to the point. At a recent conference session, MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who wrote the book Alone Together, spoke about how texting can have a dehumanising effect.

We're wresting control away from the other person and removing a critical feedback loop in a conversation where we receive a reaction (both visual and auditory). Turkle argues that text and email should be used mostly for factual exchanges.

Duffy, meanwhile, offers an example from a medical context. A patient record contains just the facts of an illness. Yet, doctors have learned not to rely only on those facts. There is a 'narrative' to a medical treatment that must include voice and physical contact.

She says a doctor often learns about the seriousness of an illness not just by the blood test results but when he or she looks into the eyes of the patient and see the pain or worry.

"Technology can hinder us by over-representing analytical skills and textual communication rather than eye contact, physical contact, silence, reflection, and rich and deep one-on-one communication," says Moraveji.

One answer is to let technology serve as the tool it was meant to be. He says it's fine for quick discussions. But nothing beats an in-person meeting to resolve conflicts, discuss strategy, or just get to know someone better.

Again, videogames are leading the way here. They have promoted more of a team-oriented approach - a shared experience. In the upcoming Xbox One console, you can play a game and have a Skype video chat at the same time.


One final concern has to do with geolocation. We've all heard the stories of the driver who mistakenly crashes into a riverbank because the GPS said to make a left turn. Like the problem of search dependence, relying on a GPS for all wayfinding results in us lacking spatial cognisance - a voice guides us rather than our intuition or knowledge.

Moraveji says relying on technological assists for geolocation could, in the long-run, be detrimental to our human development. "They essentially leave the brain under-representing major components of the natural world - in particular navigation and memory of the physical environment and interpersonal communication or self-reliant exploration. These are components of the natural world that leave the brain-body balanced and whole."

Dr Gopal Chopra is a New York-based neurosurgeon who, somewhat ironically, developed a service called PingMD that alerts medical workers by text. He says there is a clear purpose - such as that served by his startup - for technology. Yet, in-person contact, visual communication, and even a phone call stimulates the brain in unpredictable ways. Technology has to be offset by activity in the natural world.

"Our brain is geared in two basic ways: reflex and higher cognition," he says. "When we listen to instructions we are kicking in reflex, and higher cognition only comes to play when there is something in the environment such as a red light that requires interpretation and an appropriate response. So much of the instructioning going on with GPS uses our response to command functionality that we don't see the landmarks in the real world!"

The GPS is helpful, but also means we are missing out on the journey of discovery. "We are not exposing or exercising our brain in a way to enjoy an experience; we enjoy the accomplishment of the goal of reaching our destination - hence missing out on the journey. Much of our character, creativity and moral fabric is built on the journey."

Ultimately, tech is helping - society is improving overall. The experts are not decrying the value of tech advancements. At the same time, we should all be more aware of the determinants, especially when it comes to over-use of technology.

John Brandon

John Brandon has covered gadgets and cars for the past 12 years having published over 12,000 articles and tested nearly 8,000 products. He's nothing if not prolific. Before starting his writing career, he led an Information Design practice at a large consumer electronics retailer in the US. His hobbies include deep sea exploration, complaining about the weather, and engineering a vast multiverse conspiracy.