John Merakovsky
Jul 12, 2012

OPINION: Church of the Connected Mind

Self-confessed technology addict John Merakovsky, managing director for Experian Marketing Services in Asia Pacific, ponders the mental impacts of always-on connections and obsessive social-media usage.

OPINION: Church of the Connected Mind

I start this month's article with a confession. I am an addict. I am an early adopter, or what others would call a technology addict. There are four people in my house, and we have 18 Apple products. I've always been this way, or at least for as long as I've had any disposable income. I was the first person in my circle of friends to have a WalkMan, a CD player, a modem, a mobile phone and a PDA. There's no bragging rights here, just the admission of an addiction that I'm finally coming to terms with in my 40s, and a glimmer of hope of redemption in the future.

The breakthrough moment for me was the decommissioning of my Blackberry. Despite my own contrary views of a great work-life balance, my family held an intervention and convinced me that I had become a slave to RIM's insidious flashing red light, and with this the ability for colleagues and clients to infiltrate every moment of my day and night. My love for the BB keyboard notwithstanding, when I finally moved onto an iPhone my world changed in a significant way. And like every addict who's kicked a habit, I'm now spreading the message with fervour.
 
The fundamental difference for me is simply push versus pull email. Every blink of the Blackberry's red eye holds the promise of a reward of some form; social, intellectual, professional. Each capitulation to the red light is rewarded neurochemically with a shot of dopamine in the brain; a feeling Freud called the Pleasure Principle. And it has the same underlying mechanism that turns some people into gambling addicts. But now having to pull down my email manually, I'm back in control. Free to inhabit the moment, free from distraction and free as Buddhists would say to 'be here now'. Internet addiction is real and comes with social consequences. But what are they?
 
Back in the early 1970s, Alvin Toffler coined the term 'Future Shock' to communicate the impacts of a rapidly changing technological world. Would you believe that when Barack Obama started his run for President, the iPhone had not been launched? It's absolutely true. We understand some of the effects of disruptive technology on our lives. In business, the print and music publishing industries are rapidly transforming, many say dying. Few true journalists work at newspapers today; most journalism happens in social media (according to George Orwell's definition, "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed, everything else is public relations"). Commodity retail is struggling due to falling margins as shoppers hold the power of price comparison in the palms of their hands. Politics, customer service and social advocacy processes have all changed through the power of social networks. Families separated by distance across the world have access to high fidelity communications at affordable prices.
 
But what of the effects on the human mind itself? Some of the research data coming through is a little alarming. From reports of computer gamers who've died in their chairs, consumed by their addiction and neglecting their bodily needs; through to stories about the link between teenage Facebook usage and depression, the media is full of stories that frighten more than enlighten. I've read some of the the original research papers, and there is a definite correlation between excessive time on social media and depression in teenagers. But at this stage we don't know which is cause and which is effect. It might simply be that depressed kids spend more time on Facebook.
 
Fear Of Missing Out (or FOMO) is the most common self-reported reason for obsessive social media usage. This year Chinese, Korean and Taiwenese medical establishments have formally recognised Internet Addiction Disorder as a true mental illness requiring specialist treatment. A recent Chinese medical study has shown an excess of white matter in the brains of Internet addicted people, specifically in areas associated with attention and control, with corresponding shrinkage in grey matter associated with speech, memory and emotion. But is this a good thing or a bad thing? People are increasingly having difficulty focussing on sustained cognitive tasks. When was the last time you worked on your computer for a solid hour without checking email? When was the last time you saw a young person on public transportation reading a book? These changes are accompanied by a significant improvement in the ability to multi-task and parallel process multiple streams of information. Is this just another step in our evolution? What price will we pay for our collective inability to focus for long periods of time? The answer is, we just don't know yet; it's simply happening faster than our ability to study it.
 
The Amish community is well known for shunning modern technology. The Amish fear their world will come off second-best in a collision with ours. As a fundamentally religious society, they are true to a set of values to which everything else is subservient. But it's not an irrational fear that causes the Amish to reject technology. They actually assess the impacts of technological change and make an active decision to adopt or reject it on the basis of its positive or negative contribution to their way of life. For example, they have shared telephone landlines on their farms for use in emergencies, but don't allow phones into their homes for fear of disruption to family conversation, and consequently their family relationships.
 
Steve Jobs was the successful product of the collision of two worlds; a hippy counterculture in San Francisco tripping on psychedelics and the Silicon Valley semiconductor revolution. Jobs, the billionaire hippy, created the greatest marketing company ever. People talk about Jobs and Apple with cult-like devotion, but it didn't happen by accident. Next time you're in an Apple Store, consider the objects of worship placed around the store. Each new product placed on a pedastal, like a religous icon or the statuette of a god. Each Apple Genius, venerated like a high priest, sought for consultation by those with specific issues only the Genius can address. Jobs changed the world and undoubtedly moreso than he imagined when Apple launched the iconic 'Think Different' marketing campaign. Our thinking and brains are literally different the more we rely on our interconnected devices; we just don't know yet whether it's for better or for worse.
 

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