The Internet: Fueling our Evolution or Leading us to our Demise?

From stone tools to digital devices, technology has had a constant influence on our evolution.

From the moment our ancient ancestors used their first tool, technology has been a constant companion on our species’ evolutionary road trip.  That same innovative moment created technological “haves” who quickly adopted and utilized these new tools and “have nots” who either refused to or were prevented from adopting them.  This dichotomous existence continues to this day and one of its most prominent current manifestations is the collective technology of the internet.  At an exponentially increasing rate, the internet is knocking down barriers in human communication that have existed for tens of thousands of years, forcing us to rethink and relearn how we create, consumer and share content.

While the “haves” or Early Adopters and the “have nots” or the Laggards don’t agree on the efficacy of these technological advances, they generally agree with our natural ability to leverage them.  For instance, most researchers (regardless of their technological bias) agree that humans are not effective multitaskers (listen to NPR interview http://n.pr/10QZKkM), have an upper bound on the number of relationships they can maintain (read NYT article http://nyti.ms/11SWOKS) and acknowledge the primordial and addictive nature of asynchronous communication.

Technology Adoption Curve

They disagree however on humanity’s ability to recognize its historical limitations and develop methods to overcome them and harness the full potential of their technological advances.   As with the advent of printing press and the clock this technological innovation has disrupted conventional cultural norms, creating evangelists and detractors that have little in common other than the strength of their convictions that society is either taking a giant step ahead or is ever closer to complete disintegration.

Early Adopters 

Early Adopters of technology pontificate the benefits of the communication revolution that has been fueled by internet.  They talk about the cathartic value of ambient intimacy that occurs when people are able to follow the daily events of their extended network.  The efficient technology Haves will wax poetically about how the internet provides them with instant access to almost infinite information, eliminating the need for them to commit facts and figures to memory, allowing them more time for deeper contemplation or social endeavors.  Social conservatives will preach that the internet allows a society to police itself, helping college students and others to think about the consequences of thier actions for fear of it becoming part of thier perpetual digital record.  Liberal supporters believe the proliferation of users updating their status will help them attain greater self actualization.  Overall, regardless of their political or social views, Early Adopters believe they have harnessed the power of the internet to create a more informed, more connected and more convenient life.

Laggards

With a passion matching that of the Early Adopters, Laggards vehemently believe that the internet is to be viewed skeptically at best or at worst totally avoided.  They argue that the internet is reprogramming the human mind, making it incapable or reading, let alone comprehending, anything longer than 140 characters (the limit of a Tweet) creating a mindless society of pancake users who are miles wide and only inches deep.  The “touchy feely” Laggards bemoan the loss of in-person relationships and the inability of connected users to interact with live people.  Academia lectures about the negative impact the internet has had on the ability of today’s students to focus on a single topic for any significant amount of time.  The harshest critics point out a paradox where the heaviest internet users don’t are effectively digitally illiterate and are ignorant of the features and benefits technology provides.  Overall, regardless of their political or social views, Laggards see technology as a threat and believe the movement away from traditional competencies and lifestyles is fraught with peril.

In the End

Both types of users and both sides of the debate have convincing, fact based arguments, but like most topics worth debating, there isn’t an objective way to determine who’s wrong and who’s right.  Most likely, both sides are right at the same time and their perspectives will merge as more and more people adopt the new technology (most people now agree that fire, cultivation and the steam engine are good things).  Most importantly, I think academia needs to respond to these new innovations by dramatically overhauling their curriculum to teach society how to effectively use internet technologies while providing them with the training they need to prevent or at least minimize the negative consequences and side effects.   Academia’s success will largely determine if the internet is an evolutionary milestone or a tragic dead end.

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31 thoughts on “The Internet: Fueling our Evolution or Leading us to our Demise?

  1. It is definitely interesting how the trends of technology diffusion have been similar throughout the ages, no matter what technology it is. What I also find interesting is that another trend is often found with technology. There is almost always a cost to adapting it. The technologies that lead to the widespread use of automotive transportation have opened up a myriad of opportunities to those who use them. However, the costs are high (numerous accidents resulting in injury or fatality, pollution, etc). Yet there are few people in the U.S. that have not adapted this technology. This means that, for most people, the benefit has outweighed the cost. So is the cost to the internet a negative reprogramming of the human mind? Will the benefits outweigh the costs? There are quite a few more laggards left questioning this about the internet than there are about automobiles, but hopefully they will come around.

  2. The internet and social media does pose problems to things in real life. People can’t communicate unless they can type it out. People would rather have a 5 hour text conversation than just talk on the phone for a half hour, (myself included). But completely avoiding the internet is not possible i feel. Most places only do online applications, which you need an email for. So now your going to get spam emails, and its just going to drag you in. It does help giving all the information we could ever need at our finger tips though. We dont really need that great of a memory, and planning things are much easier. The internet and technology is so useful that i feel it would be an even worse idea to get rid of it.

  3. The way technology has been in our lives is very important. It plays a key role in the way we communicate, and participate with others in our lives. Instead of placing a phone call to meet up with someone and discuss future aspects of the business or situation, everything is now done via email, or texting. Even more modern times you can Skype and facetime people into meetings if they are not there. I think that because our technology has been evolving, the people have to continue to evolve with it. This requires a lot of learning and participating with the changing times in our world.

    • Totally agree that our successful evolution requires us to adopt and learn to utilize new technologies. Critically important to our successful adoption is academia playing a leading role in educating society on how to effectively utilize these tools for commerce and enjoyment. Let’s hope they step up to the plate.

  4. Technology has changed the lives of all of us. I’m pretty sure most of us have an iPhone, and if not then we have some other type of smart phone that can pretty much do just about anything we need it to do. Because of this, we are gradually progressing with technology, always buying the best of anything we can. Since we are all in school now, I’m sure were all planning to have a profession soon enough. Ever wonder how much technology will have evolved by the time you’re working? For example, if you become a doctor ever think of the technology hospitals will have, and if it will differ from others? This is what innovative people are doing. Continuing to make newer and better things for the people to have.

    • While all of the technology is a great thing to have. There is such a thing as too much technology. These companies are making their money basically without any new ideas coming out. You look at the iPhone 5, there isn’t much difference between that and the iPhone 4 but the consumers are brainwashed into buying something new as soon as it comes out. Think about everything in that case. Hats? They used to be snapbacks for $3-5 back about 10 years ago, now they are brought back as “retro” and cost $35. Same thing with phones. We used to want the smallest phones we could get, now we have a phone thats almost 6×3 inches and bigger then our hands. This is what companies pray on and we as consumers fall into the traps.

  5. I think it is very interesting to divide people into certain types of adoption. Although I am really not sure what I would consider myself, I know that I am probably not a Laggard based on the description you gave of them. I think most people look at the internet as an absolutely amazing thing. It has literally changed the lives of every person who uses it, and it will continue to get better every day. I couldn’t fathom living without the internet for an extended period of time after having been an avid user of it for the past decade. I can only hope that the internet will lead us to new and exciting things in the future.

  6. There are many views when it comes to the progress of technology. Especially when it comes to the internet. This post provides an adequate breakdown of of the factions of thinking when it comes to this topic. The last part of this post is a good analysis because one cannot deny the positive impact of technology, but at the same time there are drawbacks to the progress that has been made. It is hard to transition completely as a human race to something that is so new. We still have ways of communicating interacting that have just recently started to change after thousands of years.

    Innovation is something that should always be accepted. Everything with humans can be contributed to time and evolution. We all evolve, and the technology will evolve with us. Even if it takes us to a point where we are not using our brains as much as we were in the past. the fact that we have progressed to a point where we can construct machines to do almost every task for us is amazing in itself.

    • At least until Skynet becomes self aware and launches its missiles and creates Terminators to wipe out the human race!

  7. Not using the internet or trying to stop people from using the internet would be completely impossible. Without it, we would lose one major way of communicating with others. We would lose access to tons of information that the world wide web has to offer. The new improvements of the internet and other forms of technology can help think about new ideas and discover how to benefit others. Thus, newer ideas can lead to improvement and help people discover new perspectives of thinking.

  8. I love the first image. It’s clever, yet truthful and a bit frightening. I agree that most humans are good at multitasking. I think it is hard for us because technology is still somewhat new to us. I think in decades to come there will be many changes and most people won’t have to think twice about being able to multitask. I think it is so interesting that there are people who think we are training our brains to talk or think like we tweet, only being able to speak 140 character. If communication ever comes to this, everybody will look like robots. I feel like most people would be divided by what level of adoption they are because of their age and/or social class.

    • The NPR interviews about declining driving performance, even in experienced drivers, when talking on the phone. It would be quite amazing if our technology helps us evolve past this point, allowing us to multi task without sacrificing performance. Perhaps we won’t even have to wait to evolve and we’ll just augment our brains with micro processors, If I had to bet which would happen first, I’d bet on the latter.

  9. There are pros and cons about multitasking. For those who believe they are effective multitaskers; I have a challenge. When watching The News (CNN, MSNBC, GMA, etc.) try reading the scrolling information at the bottom of the television screen and follow along with the story being told. It’s nearly impossible and I have yet come across someone who has been successful at it. What typically happens is that you skip from one task to another without understanding (in detail) what either news story was about. GMA took this to another level this morning, while broadcasting a story, they layered in the ever-scrolling information at the bottom of the screen and then they layered tweets on top of that.

    Yet, it’s not all that bad, this multitasking. There has never been more information available at our fingertips and the barrage of information has never been easier to uncover. The only requirement is to “logon” and we are immerse in a sea of information. Information is empowering, and the more information we have the better off we are, and that my friends is a good thing

    • Great challenge and great way to demonstrate the myth of multi tasking. I have had the TV on while responding to posts and I have no idea what transpired on the program. While some may be better at this than others, I don’t think anyone can truly multi task.

  10. I would have to say I definitely fall into the late majority category. I got a Facebook, twitter, and Snap Chat late compared to most people, and it was only because others convinced me I should use these. I found them to be right after some time, but initially I wasn’t sure I needed to be involved in another interactive communication site. When it comes to new products however, I am definitely an early adopter. Any device that can bring me the latest and greatest media experience is something I want to be a part of. I also definitely agree with the PBS article that humans are awful multitasker’s. It seems we want to do more than we can, which can sometimes get us into trouble.

  11. I believe that the internet is absolutely fueling our evolution. We will become more and more accepting of technology as time goes by but new ones will always be looked at with skepticism. Socrates thought that the development of writing would cause people to “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful”. He feared people would “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction” which basically means we would not understand it in the way it was meant to be understood. In the short run this may have occurred but in the long run writing and reading would only serve to better human knowledge. Things like the printing press also caused similar controversy. We know now that all of these inventions helped us evolve into what we are today and they are completely accepted in our society. Most of the arguments against these innovations have held true but in the end the benefits outweighed the costs and change is inevitable. The internet will be no different in that it will fuel our evolution. Only time will tell what the long term effects of the internet age are but it certainly changes us for better and for worse.

  12. I think that technology in the classroom is both helpful and hurtful. I lean more towards the hurtful side because while it does allow for the shy or quiet students to share their opinions without them being embarrassed, it also detracts from face-to-face communication. Face-to-face communication is the most important means of communication to me. I feel it’s alright if teachers and professors use social media, but not rely on it solely or make it above face-to-face communication. Use it as a forum, outside the classroom, almost like we do with Twitter for our class. Then use it to spark discussion in the next class.
    My feelings probably correspond with my own “categorization” as the “late majority” in the adaptation scale of technology. I try to hold off as long as I can before I pick up the new technology, sometimes I stay away from it completely. For example, I don’t have a smart phone, I have an old side-slide keyboard phone. I will hold off as long as I possibly can before I have to get a smart phone because I don’t like them and I feel like they make everyone’s world revolve around them and I don’t want that. I feel like today’s world revolves around the latest technological advancement, but it’s going so quick we can’t keep up. Therefore we are misusing everything. We take advantage of being able to look up everything in just a quick second. No longer do we have to wait until we get home to look up the questions that pop into our mind. With the rate technology is advancing, I feel like this will just continue and with that, I will continue to drag my feet with joining the band wagon.

    • Great post. I think your refusal to get a smart phone because of the impact it will have on your ability to stay in the moment is very interesting. Manufacturers certainly know how addictive these devices are and perhaps we should start to treat these products like cigarettes, requiring them to put warning labels on the packaging and provide funds to educate and train people to understand the detriments of the devices and how to avoid them .

  13. If I had to place myself in a category it would be a Laggard, only because I would rather verbally communicate then read it and type my replies. I do think that the internet provides us with unlimited access to tons of information, but I think it also takes away certain abilities, such as researching a paper for class. The gap that the internet has put between people and the touchable world is a great one and I feel if people dont get in touch with those things they will have a lonely world

    • Perhaps we shouldn’t fault the student for using a calculator in a stats class or a liberal arts student for using the internet to research a paper. Instead, maybe we need to find ways to teach them be self reliant and self sufficient by creating assignments and tests that eliminate the possibility of them using these crutches. That way we can prepare them for the day they have to generate original content.

  14. I would have to say that I would be considered a Laggard. I try hard to avoid social networking. I mean there are many pros and cons to being online, but personally, I think a lot of it is pointless. I would definitely have to agree with the way we read now though. It is so true. I mean honestly when I see a long article on the internet, I generally don’t like reading it and it takes way longer than it should. I love to read books in free time so it isn’t a disliking of reading. It is the fact that it is online. There are so many other distractions and when I am on the computer I have an attention span of about five seconds. It’s really terrible.

  15. I am most definitely an early adopter, I jump on the new tech as soon as I can. I work in a field that technology is a life line and helps put you ahead of the game if you can learn it better and faster than others. I hope one day I can even help create some new tech and become an innovator.
    Technology has had a massive effect on our society as a whole. I would say that the majority of the changes have been positive, but a few negative effects have occurred. Overall the it has increased the efficiency of our communication and knowledge gathering. Efficiency is what puts humans on top of the food chain. If you think about it we are not physically dominate, we are just more efficient. Early humans were able to increase their efficiency using tools, this new more efficient system helped them survive and thrive in a world that they would have more than likely died off in without it. The internet is also helping humans be more efficient. Massive research projects that have contributors from around the world are made possible by the internet and this new more efficient way to communicate has lead to several medical and technological breakthroughs that may not have happened without the cooperation of a world wide team.
    The negative side of things is that people are losing the ability to write in a more formal matter. The art of spacecraft is also taking a hit, people do not spend enough time face to face to hone their speaking abilities to the fine points that where more common before the age of text messaging and email. I would much rather text you a few short words to convey a point than to write a long drawn out thesis about it. I though am probably in a minority when it comes to speaking and love to try and come up with artistic and interesting ways to convey a point. The internet is slowly changing not only the way we learn but also how we communicate, making a more efficient system and cutting out the artistic style and flare of the old system.

    • Good point about people not honing their speaking abilities. These skills are critical in important and complex situations. I imagine the Supreme Court couldn’t effectively perform their jobs solely using text and SMS. As such, I think its really important that we teach our kids and students the importance and relevance of “formal” communication

      • The best classes of my life were speech classes. Learning how to communicate fluently does a lot for your self image. I have always had a bit of a knack for it, I am a bit of a ham, but learning the art of speaking helps break people from their shell. Everyone needs to take a couple speech classes in their life, even if you never have to formally speak they help you in your daily life more than people would think.

  16. As much as I love the internet, I have to say I despise the type of people who immerse themselves so deeply in technology that they cannot function without it. I’m talking about the type of person who begins to avoid phone calls with the logic that they can “just text back.” (I can name multiple people I know who are like this!) Communicating through the internet or through text is simply slower than just picking up the phone and calling to ask a question that will probably take a minute. I do not wish to avoid the internet altogether, like a “Laggard,” but I cannot say I don’t see where they are coming fro

  17. As you mention in your article, there is research out there that suggests that multitasking while communicating (ex. driving and texting) is not a good way to communicate with people; people perform better when they only focus on one task at the time.
    The new way people communicate (through various social media outlets) has grown exponentially “as you mention in your blog” for the good of the society.

    People have the ability to choose what to see and determine what is right or wrong. Personally, one of the disadvantages that I see with the internet is that when you are trying to solve a problem and the solution is easily available, many people don’t try to solve it by themselves. Instead, many users just copy and paste the solutions into the problems and don’t learn all the steps that go into the learning process.

    The fact that people use Twitter, Facebook or other types of communication is good in some ways. For example, engineers in different countries can communicate amongst themselves by using video conferencing to solve conflicts or even train personnel; all without leaving their home country. The bad thing is when some people spend most of their time using Facebook, Twitter, etc… as a way to communicate, instead of physically interacting with the rest of society.

    • Really good point and I think a good analogy here is the calculator. While it has made it much easier and faster to compute large numbers, it hasn’t changed the fact that people need to know how to “do math” in order to lead successful and productive personal and professional lives. Similarly, the internet won’t eliminate the need for communication, but it sure will impact how that communication occurs.

  18. I posted about this on twitter, but it’s really interesting to me what automation in cars is going to do for multi-tasking and the evolution of humanity:
    http://www.wxyz.com/dpp/money/auto_news/7-action-news-rides-along-with-a-company-that-is-developing-automated-driving

    I totally agree with you that academia needs to focus on teaching people how to effectively use new technologies. So many people post without truly thinking about the consequences of doing so.

  19. In my opinion, the socio-economic technology gap is wider than many would like to think. Technology, of course, carries benefits untold for the field of medicine to entertainment. But, It’s expensive to have an iphone and, for some, internet access. It’s fair to say a lack of sufficient income=a lack of sufficient technology. And in turn, a lack of technology means may are denied access to jobs that could allow them to escape poverty. The march of progress can leave many behind.

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