Today, you may read what follows here and be skeptical of my warning. Many of you will undoubtedly believe that none of this applies to you, although the frog enjoyed a warm bath too, until he boiled. If you were to read this five years from now, I expect you may say, duh! and oops! By then, however, it may be too late.
There has been much hand-wringing and debate over the use of digital devices by our children, but not so much about the effects of digital device addiction among adults. After all, don’t adults possess enough knowledge and discretion to make appropriate decisions about their own behaviors? New research suggests the answer is no; not because we lack knowledge and discretion, but that we have been slowly but surely sucked into our digital addiction by nefarious actors whose sole aim is to glue our eyes to their screens. We are just now realizing the extraordinary deleterious effects, and we had better get a handle on them before our next act of involuntary submission: the embrace of artificial intelligence (AI).
At the dawn of the digital age in the 1990s, the promise of all-things-digital was magnificent. Instantaneous everything: information, communication, entertainment, education, and commerce. A frictionless world. What could possibly go wrong with that? The value propositions were overwhelmingly compelling in all aspects of our lives. We even convinced ourselves that companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon were, at their core, imbued with a sense of enlightened altruism. Remember Google’s motto? “Don’t be evil.” Further, how would we ever be duped by a shiny-faced college dropout like Mark Zuckerberg who just wanted us to find long-lost friends? Bezos? He just wanted to get us cheap books, fast. Speed, which our parents warned would kill us, became our new best friend. And now we watch the brilliant but dangerous Elon Musk attempt his final ascent to the throne of Dr. Evil as King Tweet. Of course, always asserting an undying commitment to free speech as his royal robe of dignified intent. Of that, we should indeed be skeptical.
As those early years of digital optimism turned into decades, we have benefited greatly, especially in terms of economic productivity. The greatest expansion of wealth in the history of humankind occurred during the digital age. Products are made cheaply and move to doorsteps in days—sometimes hours—instead of months. New knowledge is shared instantaneously. With a few apps, we can know whatever we want, buy whatever we want, find love wherever we want, and locate our kids at any moment plus-or-minus a square foot or two, anywhere on the planet. Compared to our former analog lives, we are living in a world that previous generations could only dream about. The most fantastic science fiction of their era didn’t even come close to imagining the world we live in today.
It is painful to acknowledge that our dream is turning into a nightmare, but new research shows there is a huge cost to all this speed, convenience, and efficiency. Setting aside the environmental impacts for the moment, our cognitive impatience enabled by digital technologies is producing cognitive impairment. Our need for instant gratification has seriously degraded our capacity for calm discernment. We are like those lab rats frantically licking at the drip-dispenser of cocaine-laced water. It’s not just that many have become couch-locked slackers playing online games, many of us have become cognitively impaired to the point we have lost our agency as independent rational thinkers capable of forming and maintaining secure relationships with each other and the world in which we live. We are fast becoming demented digital zombies incapable of caring for ourselves or others unless, of course, there is an app for that.
I share what comes next with as much compassion as I can muster. It is a personal and tragic story that has taken me some time and much research to understand. I share it with great reluctance. Frankly, it is both painful and embarrassing. But the urgency I see that we face with the acceleration of AI (as it takes the same insidious path of intrusion as digital devices), instills me with a sense of moral imperative to pull the fire alarm.
It is heartbreaking to watch someone lose themselves to digital dementia. The challenge is that even while you are watching it unfold you do not know what you are watching, at least not the first time you see it. I saw someone spiral so far down the digital rabbit hole as to render their intellect unhinged and their character unrecognizable. Every waking moment their hands were otherwise unoccupied they steadied an iPhone screen close to their face. Google became their brain and Facebook their world. They thought their life had become rich and spacious when, in reality, it had become a superficial artifice of conceit and contrivance. Their independent thinking vanished and judgment collapsed as algorithms written to manipulate them sucked their life away leaving them in a constant and desperate search for their next digital fix. To be clear, this is an addiction. Real life was no longer attractive as online fantasies overwhelmed any rationally based expectations. An alternate virtual reality took over. In their mind, everyone else was the problem—they were the ones thinking clearly. They believed they were operating at a new higher level of enlightenment. Everyone around them became expendable. They were certain that the next buy-now click or swipe-right romance would make all their dreams come true.
Here is what I observed, which now, thanks to emerging research, has stages and names to help identify and perhaps interrupt the process before the victim is completely lost to their digital dreamland. See if you recognize any of this in yourself or others. If you do, stop, think, and act.
The descent into digital addiction and dementia begins with the loss of situational- and self- awareness. A human’s eyes are their natural navigation system. When they are glued to a screen, they lose much of their situational awareness. Surroundings, including other human beings, are simply no longer seen. Cartoons depicting people walking into the street unaware of the car about to hit them characterize this condition well. But it is much more dangerous than that. Self-awareness—the ability to be responsibly aware of what you are doing and the impact it has on others—declines precipitously. When one loses an entire array of social cues, which are a vital human feedback loop, they also lose the capacity for self-correction. Unbeknownst to them, they have become insensitive, rude, and even insulting to those around them. In fairness to them, they harbor no malicious intent, they simply have no clue.
The next effect is what I call isolation-by-algorithm. The software on your digital device is designed to give you what you want or, perhaps more accurately, what the software designer wants you to want to maximize their company’s profits. The intoxicant here is the satisfaction you receive by being fed things that are attractive to you and with which you agree—all based on your prior interactions with the device/app/software. Verification of this condition is as simple as having two people ask for the same information on the same app at the same time in the same place. Unless you are very similar in your demographic and personal preference profiles, you will get different answers to the exact same query. Truth becomes relative. On the surface, this seems pretty benign, perhaps even preferred. Google calls them “customized responses.” But here is the danger. Over time, the software gets to know you better and better and needs to provide you with larger doses of satisfaction—its opiate—to increase your screen time thereby increasing their profits. The result is that your online world becomes smaller and narrower. If that online world is your world, you become dangerously isolated from reality.
This isolation leads naturally to the next effect: intellectual sclerosis. A narrowing and hardening of the mind. The historical archetype of this condition is the grumpy old man. The person who quits reading, learning, and engaging in new experiences; who just wants things to be the way they used to be; who prefers regression to progression. Today, depending on the extent to which we rely on our digital devices to guide our lives, we are all susceptible to this condition—not just grumpy old men. Intellectual sclerosis narrows options and amplifies certitude. Both are extremely debilitating to better decision making and best practices. Further, our capacity for reflection, which is an integral element of contemplation, is lost. The larger problem, however, is that this condition is a one-two punch to our welfare. Not only do we make bad decisions, we believe they are great decisions. After all, as our digital devices continually refine what is now our principal feedback loop, they constantly reaffirm our desires making us believe that we are correct and, moreover, that we deserve better! Everyone else can just go pound sand.
The chain of effects continues to spiral down with a change in disposition marked by emboldened intolerance. As one’s world shrinks, tolerance for anything and anybody that differ or vary in any way with the expectations defined by this smaller world are dismissed, then often discarded. This is when the pain for others begins to really kick in. The open, compassionate, and predictable person you thought you knew so well performs an acrobatic Jekyll-to-Hyde backflip. And, because self-awareness is long-gone at this point, they feel no disorientation nor responsibility whatsoever. Rather, they may even feel a new sense of confidence and inspiration. Their cocktail-of-choice is a mix of entitlement and righteousness. Stubbornness is worn like a badge of courage. Confronting a person in this state of mind is a very perilous undertaking.
As with all addictions, avoidance behaviors and deceit by concealment comes next. Digital dementia now starts to set in; character is lost. Answers to questions become completely disconnected with the truth and with reality. They often simply depend on who is asking the question, rather than providing a truthful consistent response. Traditional values that undergird character vanish. Their life, which feels uninhibited and invigorating to them, has actually become superficial, shallow, and deeply insecure. Secure attachment to others is no longer valued or even possible. Selfishness, cowardice, and dishonesty take over. Memory loss is a coincident factor inasmuch as yesterday comes into direct conflict with today. Forgetting conveniently dissolves dissonance.
The final step in this downward spiral is a persistent set of delusions. Specifically (and oddly), a combination of delusional paranoia and delusions of grandeur. ‘Others,’ including and especially those they were once close to, are perceived as imminent threats. Advocates are now adversaries. Many previous relationships are summarily destroyed to affect a grand reimagined life that has been meticulously constructed by highly manipulative algorithms. All prior grievances are collected into a sense of victimhood that are magically vanquished by blowing everything up. Collateral damage is a certainty, but again, no awareness assures no responsibility.
Sadly, the above descent into digital dementia is more common than we might like to admit. What I witnessed was an extreme case, but also not that unusual. It is happening across all age groups and all aspects of life. Its effects are indiscriminate and pervasive. The process is insidious. We have sleep-walked our way into our current predicament. None of us are immune, although as with all addictions some are more susceptible than others depending on particular circumstances including pre-existing psychological dispositions. The only cure (as with any addiction) appears to be some level of abstinence. Life is, after all, a balancing act. As Oscar Wilde suggested, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
I remember when “You’ve Got Mail!” was a joyful moment of new human connections; when technology brought us closer together. Unfortunately, over the last twenty-five years, the opposite is now true: technology has become a lever of division and disunity by and between ourselves and nature. As I argued in “Our Huge Opportunity” (November 13, 2022), “Seeing ourselves as separate from each other and from nature is the biggest threat to humanity today.” On New Year’s Day, 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that all slaves “henceforth shall be free” in his Emancipation Proclamation. He saw bondage of humans by humans as the principal threat to our nation’s unity. Today, the bondage that threatens our agency, our freedoms, and our unity is of humans by technology. However, there is no proclamation that can save us. Zuckerberg’s new metaverse is just an action video version of the Facebook trap. Each of us must assert our will to flip what has become a master-slave relationship; to, once again, require technology to serve us rather than control us.
Before AI takes over our lives—driving us further into a demented digital dreamland—we might first want to reclaim the lives we once had.
Note: If you are looking for a resource to assist you in redefining your relationship with technology, I recommend: Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World that offers a number of tips and tools to once again become masters of our lives that have been compromised by way too much digital engagement.