The good and the bad of digital dependency

Reading a lovely book at the moment called Cyburbia (James Harkin) who argues that humna social activity resembles an electronic network, equating organic social networks – cybernetics – to technical networks.

Harkin charts the history of this field, how it was born in an obscure military experiement during the Second World War, was nurtured in the quasi-communist ideology of 1960s West Coast counterculture and then emerged as an intellectual orthodoxy for the digital age. There is lots of commentary on the effects of the internet etc but the aspect that fansinates me is the Harkin’s belief that something is happening at the cognotive level of our brains. He cites research showing a marked effect on the prefronted cortex (where memories are formed) as a result of constant switching between different data streams – check email; send text; surf web; change TV channel; chat on Instant Messenger; check Facebook; check email again. This generation will be better atholding many things in their heads at once, but worse at remembering them afterwards.

One of Harkin’s most penetrating critiques is an account of how the US army’s reliance on computer tecnology hampered its counter-insurgency tactics in Iraq. GIs were all wired up to each other, constantly feding information back and forth across the battlefield. But they ended up paralysed by data overload. The network functioned brilliantly, but purely for its own sake.

That is the danger Harkin sees in our ultra-networked society. Of the millions of communications that bind us together, few convey messages of any importance. Real human interaction risks being lost in a fog of self-sustaining, vacuous digital chatter.

The danger for knowledge workers is that we don’t build roads just to fill them with cars but actually consider the reason for the journey before we even build the road.


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