Staying Human in the Digital Age


May 24, 2012 Blog 3 Comments

Staying sane, as most of us will have thought at some point, isn’t easy. Few can truly claim to be fully in control of their minds – a feat which some argue is becoming harder and harder with the advent of hyper-connected digital technologies. Since the advent of web applications that not only host information, but actively deliver content to its users – RSS aggregators, social media services, and recommendation engines - the denizens of the modern internet are assaulted with more information than human beings have ever had to cope with (And yes, we can refer to a ‘modern internet‘ as much as we can refer to the old internet, or even the older internet).

Lives are lived online, and the opportunity to have a live feed into the minds of those you care about is becoming a clearer reality. People are more willing to share and consume horizontally through their social networks, rather than vertically, being fed only from omnipotent content producers and advertisers. The organic spread of ideas, relationships, and trade can now be observed and measured on scales of unprecedented detail.

How does this affect us as humans? How is our brain chemistry changed by this rapid influx, and outpouring,  of data on a daily basis? This is a relatively new field of study which has been picked up on in a number of TED talks.

On the pessimistic side, Philip Zimbardo reckons that the minds of young men in particular are being eroded by easily-available stimulation, robbing them of their virility and youth.

TED is all about hearing the good news, though, and there are hundreds of talks from across the world celebrating the benefits that technology can bring us.

Nicholas Christakis talks about the fascinating anthropology of the internet in his Q&A for the TED blog in May 2010.

Susan Blackmore cultivates the idea that we are increasingly effective vessels for memes in her 2008 talk, exploring the new technologically-aided viral idea or ‘teme.’

Tom Chatfield, in his book How to Thrive in the Digital Age suggests that rather than embracing technology and enslaving ourselves to it, or rejecting it outright and living as unplugged luddites, we should instead seek to become techological gourmets – espousing only the machines which have the ability to enrich our lives. He argues that we should be discerning in our choices when deciding which technologies to use, and adapt our behaviour to only benefit from them. It is too easy to fall into addiction, time-wasting, and lazy thinking when connected to our go-to entertainment sources. This is an idea I can live with – a gourmet wouldn’t eat all the food he sees, so why would he plug himself into every bright screen that flickers and beeps at him?

Where do the boundaries lie? Are we becoming more or less human in the digital age? Can we answer these questions before we reach the singularity?

If you’ve clicked on every single link in this post and watched each talk… we appreciate the commitment, but really, you might want to think about getting some help.


Michael Metcalf

Editor and Head of Media for TEDxSalford / Reluctant Optimist / Explorer of All Things Manchester

3 Comments to “Staying Human in the Digital Age”

  1. Free Education for All? We Are on Our Way | TEDxSalford
    [...] us are downright drowning in the river of information like Michael described in his previous post, Staying Human in the Digital Age, the majority of the world’s population remains in an informational void due to lack of [...]
  2. How To Be Happy | TEDxSalford
    [...] age, is that it’s addictive, and as I mentioned in my last post, can be responsible for your brain turning to mush.This is just one chemical amongst many that affect how we perceive happiness (Don’t even get [...]
  3. TEDxSalford – Video Games Are Not A Waste Of Time - TEDxSalford
    [...] Tom Chatfield, a British videogame writer and thinker who I mentioned in a previous post about survival in the digital age, gave a talk about the ways in which games reward the brain. He also wrote an absorbing book on the [...]

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