Your brain on digital technology

Our relationship with technology has intensified in this century with a rapturous embrace of Internet technologies and the gadgetry put in our hands by big technology companies. But even as we've made these technologies an extension of ourselves and experience the world and ourselves through them, our culture is starting to take a step back to re-examine the impact they're having on us.
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Our relationship with technology has intensified in this century with a rapturous embrace of Internet technologies and the gadgetry put in our hands by big technology companies. But even as we've made these technologies an extension of ourselves and experience the world and ourselves through them, our culture is starting to take a step back to re-examine the impact they're having on us. On this month's edition of The Enright Files, conversations about what the technologies of the Internet universe are doing to our minds and the way we live.

Nicolas Carr: What the Internet is doing to our minds

In 2018, we worry about the monopoly power of big technology companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. We've become concerned about the addictiveness of their technologies and how they've enabled political polarization, the proliferation of fake news, and the undermining of liberal democracy. 

In 2013, we mostly worried that our love of all things Internet was making us dumber and more distracted, eroding our capacity for critical thinking, focus and deep concentration. Oh, look, there's a video of a kitten being adorable.

Nicholas Carr is a prominent American journalist and author who sees our minds as being hopelessly susceptible to the endless distractions and rapid-fire barrage of information the Internet serves up to us. 

He further argues that rather than being a transformative tool for democratic participation change, the Internet has made our participation in civil society more fleeting. We'll sign online petitions or like someone's Facebook post about an issue, but lose interest when the next viral cause comes along. 

Michael Enright spoke with Nicholas Carr in April 2013, a couple of years after he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to our Minds

The anti-democratic reign of Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon

This photograph taken on September 28, 2017, shows a smartphone being operated in front of GAFA logos (acronym for Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon web giants) as background in Hédé-Bazouges, western France. (DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly two-thirds of all North Americans own smartphones. Ninety-nine percent of those phones, run on software by Apple or Google.

People use those phones for messaging and texting, for emailing, for social media, for watching videos, for listening to music, for searching for things online, for shopping, for reading news, and for almost anything else. 

Almost all of those products and services are provided by Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon ... or companies owned by them. 

Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon came to dominate their markets by creating better products that people wanted. But to Franklin Foer, their hegemony poses grave dangers for democracy, let alone the principle of competition.

He sees a handful of huge corporations monopolizing our attention and shaping our consciousness itself, not to mention our economies. Imagine if governments in Western democracies did as much to monopolize our attention and influence our minds and our way of life as big tech companies do today.

Franklin Foer is a former editor of The New Republic Magazine, and he's the author of World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.

What are smartphones doing to young people?

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The author Ronald Wright once wrote that humans living in the Information Age are running 21st century software on 50,000-year-old hardware.

Which is to say, our brains. 

The software got a huge upgrade in 2007 with the arrival of the iPhone. The iPad followed three years later. Smartphones have utterly revolutionized our way of life in barely more than a decade. What they're doing to our cranial hardware, though, is less clear.

That uncertainty hasn't stopped us from putting smartphones in the hands of our children.

In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of American teenagers either owned or had access to a smartphone. 

The average age at which kids in the U.S. become smartphone owners? … 10 years old. 

Something that didn't even exist 11 years ago is now so essential to life in the modern world that few people — including kids — can imagine life without them.

And that's the problem.

One addiction expert in the UK likened giving a child a smartphone to "giving them a gram of cocaine." 

Another body of research has linked smartphone use among young people to sleep disruption, loneliness, anxiety, depression and even increased risk of suicide. 

Last November Michael Enright spoke with Jean Twenge — a professor of psychology at San Diego State University — about her research into the effects of smartphones and social media on kids. 

Also taking part in that discussion was Clive Thompson, a widely-read Canadian technology journalist and the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For The Better. 

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