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The Incompatibility of Human Thinking and the Digital Age

Technological advancements in the last three years have occurred at frightening pace. This event does not appear to be a temporary fixture as the rate of development continues to increase.  On the other hand, the evolution of man has taken several million years. Our behaviour and style of thinking are established. It takes time for us to accept something that challenges convention. We instigated the digital age and many of us are ‘connected’ in some way or form. However, are we suitably developed to utilise this expanding phenomenon?

Due to the varying possibilities that are now emerging, being ‘connected’ is not enough. Some individuals have adapted- becoming “hyper-connected”. Richard Nichols, Account Director at Future Foundation, defines this new being as a “very powerful, super-charged” person who acknowledges the value of freely available information and uses it to their advantage. As the digital age advances, it is these individuals who are more likely to thrive. Currently there are few individuals who are hyper-connected. They tend to work within the media and/or technology industries, in roles where one must be aware of the latest trends and innovations. Consequently, there are lessons that the ‘masses’ can learn from these people. However it must be stressed that even the hyper-connected struggle with the current rate of development (e.g. a recent IAB survey reported that 53% of agencies have no idea of certain areas in mobile marketing). So the hyper-individual is by no means the ‘perfect’ model.

Psychologists are arguing that the digital age may be incompatible with human thinking and society. There needs to be guidance and reactionary policy to combat this issue otherwise the digital age could blur identities, cause social unrest and even challenge established, cognitive theories. The digital age is by no means a negative thing but we need to be flexible and adapt if we are to benefit.

Daniel McFadden’s latest paper, “The New Science of Pleasure”, addresses some of these issues. The essay argues that we must turn to psychology to help explain human behaviour and abandon economic theory. In particular, McFadden speaks of how the digital age questions our rationality. For example, as consumers, we tend to make decisions taking into account the amount of money that we have. Due to the digital age, there are now more ways to do this (e.g. the rise of price comparison websites). However this maximising approach is often a poor decision-making strategy because one can often spend endless hours comparing specifications and prices. As a result, the rational becomes irrational. The fear is that this irrationality could lead us to question some of our other established motives. To prevent this from occurring, we need to become more time-efficient like the hyper connected. They are utilising the benefits of the ‘big data’ age by successfully identifying those sources which yield the highest utility in return for data collection. Following this logic, our rationality can be restored.

McFadden also discusses the risk of our population becoming “social animals”- where individuals solely use social networks as information sources to aid decision-making. This belief encourages herd-like behaviour where individuals follow the crowd instead of collecting and evaluating the information for themselves. This potentially causes two problems. Firstly, we could become lazy decision makers (and inefficient ones at that, especially if the information that is being followed is inaccurate). Secondly, this behaviour could cause social unrest on a large scale by increasing the risk of panics, market bubbles and instability.

This first problem can be overcome when we acknowledge that we live in an age where creativity is being promoted to the masses via social networks. A recent example, Twitter’s Vine, allows users to upload millions of individual, moments of originality. It appears that this culture of innovation is an emerging trend.

The second issue is more complex and the implications can be worse (as the 2011 riots demonstrated). The institutions that govern media need to be redesigned taking into account the new digital age. Thankfully, this is being identified as an important issue for future media law. For example, the Defamation Bill (when passed) aims to protect website operators, such as Facebook or Twitter, from claims against them when defamatory statements are published by their users. It also makes it easier to identify the people accused of making such statements. To be entitled to this protection, the websites must either facilitate contact between the complainant and the author or remove the offending material when they cannot establish contact. On the surface, this legislation sounds positive. But this proposed bill is facing a backlash because it is feared that it will compromise our freedom of expression. There is a risk that website operators may act prematurely in removing comments, thus limiting online expression. As a result, this policy may work against, rather than complement the digital age. We have reached a dilemma where we need a policy that not only incorporates the effects of the digital age, but also respects our civilian rights, duties and beliefs. This problematic outcome is not limited to the Defamation Bill. One only has to look at proposed copyright and data storage laws to identify a similar pattern.

Society desperately needs to overcome this obstacle and institutional change is required. However new policies addressing the digital age need to be more encompassing. This requires time – something we do not have when technology is evolving so quickly. It may only be in the aftermath of severe, social unrest that we are eventually willing to compromise our rigid beliefs.

Current human thinking and behaviour appears incompatible with rapid technological growth. We need to change as individuals, and as a race, so not to let these opportunities pass by. To begin, we can learn from the hyper-connected. However change on a bigger scale is required. Essentially, it boils down to a problem humans have faced for centuries- the abandonment of tradition. And in an age where that ‘tradition’ is becoming increasingly dated, if we continue to think as we presently do then we will face irreconcilable differences, missing out on the numerous opportunities that the digital age presents.


By George Viner, Intern at Vizeum