Technology Changes Everything and Nothing

Chris Impey, University Distinguished Professor, Department of Astronomy
Feb. 26, 2015

In less than two decades, the Internet and digital content have transformed our lives and how we access information. We crave bandwidth and computer speed and even exponential progress is insufficient to keep up with demand.

Who would have guessed back then that today's smartphone would have a processor that runs rings around the computer that got Apollo astronauts to the Moon? Or that the number of Web pages would have grown to over 4 billion? Or that 400 hours of video would now be uploaded onto the Internet every minute?

Yet our ability to digest and assimilate content hasn't changed for millennia. Our performance suffers as soon as we try to juggle more than a couple of tasks or thought processes. Multitasking on a computer in multiple windows can’t circumvent this cognitive bottleneck. Our attention span suffers after just 15 minutes of information flow. That's as true of watching a highly produced video as it is of listening to a dynamic lecturer.

The Internet has become a fire hose, and we can quickly get saturated.

The social transformations of technology are equally dramatic.

We're always on and always connected.

People have trouble managing email in a way that they never had trouble managing mail.

The average American spends nearly 11 hours a day in front of a television set or video screen. This is more time than they spend sleeping and far more time than they spend in conversations or face-to-face meetings.

Facebook has gone from 12 million users in 2006 to 1.4 billion nine years later; Twitter’s growth is even more meteoric. There’s a widespread sense that much of this engagement is shallow or emotionally superficial.

Yet our natural modes of social discourse haven't changed since we were hunter-gatherers. The optimal social group size is 50 to 100, and everything from the workplace to putative lunar colonies takes this into account. We form our core friendships and alliances with several dozen people at most; social scientists understand that the level of investment in Facebook friends or remote participants in a video game is low. As we did in our original social units, we form our worldview through direct experience and storytelling. The new media succeed best when they simulate these qualities.

The powerful impacts of technology are not our personal transactions with it. After all, very few people understand how the Internet or computers work, just as previous generations were largely ignorant of the workings of internal combustion engines or telephones. If they think about it at all, most people succumb to magical thinking.

The powerful impacts are the collective effects on global culture. The best computers have let us understand the climate, the biosphere and our own genome better than ever before. Wireless technology has allowed a billion people in African and Asian countries to leapfrog primitive infrastructure and improve their lives. High-quality educational materials are available free in any part of the world. Free-flowing information is a democratizing influence because despots and tyrants can’t keep it out or deny it.

Technology changes nothing, because we're still the same curious and feisty tribe that left Africa to fan out across the world. But it provides us with an amazing new toolkit. We are challenged to use technology wisely to improve our world, while leaving our humanity intact.

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