New! My Talk at Google's 2018 I/O Conference on Building Healthier Relations with Technology

Just Hand-Wringing? Why the Excesses of Technology Need Watching

In 2018, I did an interview with one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, Rob Hopkins, about the  fragmentation of attention in modern life. At the time, Hopkins was exploring an overlooked hurdle to solving global warming – our waning ability to think well and even to muster the creativity needed to imagine and shape a better future. In the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing excerpts from our wide-ranging  interview, which you can read or listen to on his great website, “Imagination Taking Power.”

Hopkins: What is qualitatively different about the kind of impacts we’re seeing in terms of attention now?

Jackson: How do we know what is different, what has truly changed in our lives?  What’s better, what’s worse?  Are our concerns about technology and distraction just the kind of handwringing that we have always seen when things change?  I have two answers to that question.  First, the totality of what we’re dealing with is so much greater.  Teens are on average exposed to nearly six hours of non-print media a day, and a significant minority experience nearly 8 hours of media a day.  So while media and technology were just a slice of life in the past, now they are a constant. They are the reality. We inhabit the virtual world in disproportionate measure to the physical, and that shift has taken just a generation to unfold.

However, it’s important to note secondly that we are getting a better handle scientifically on the impact of these changes, especially cognitively. We have strong correlational evidence linking time spent on smartphones or online to lowered well-being in children and declining empathy among young adults. As well, steep declines in children’s and adult’s capacity to imagine, persist in problem-solving, and reason coincide with recent decades of rapid technological penetration. This is important. We don’t have the full picture but we are beginning to understand the effect of technology on our lives and on our minds.

Certainly we should remain aware of the human tendency to yearn for the familiar and to look nostalgically back at the past.  But the bottom line is that we have to solve the problems of our day, and there are just too many signs that digital living in its current forms raises red flags. For instance, the ability of Americans from kindergarten to adulthood to elaborate on a problem, to put flesh on an idea, for instance, has dropped by 40 percent since the 1980s, and the most steep drop has occurred in the years since technology came to play such a dominant role in our lives.

There are warning bells, and just as with climate change, we can wait until all the t’s are crossed and I’s are dotted on the evidence or we can act to solve the problems of our day, using the best possible assessments available to us at this time.

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