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Digital dilemmas shape the zeitgeist

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Digital dilemmas shape the zeitgeist


As the last sands of 2013 and the first ones of 2014 drop through the hourglass, we will be sharing kisses and hugs with our beloved ones, uncorking champagne bottles – if we are lucky enough to afford them – and wishing each other a Happy New Year! We will then be reaching for our smartphones, electronic pads or whatever digital gadgets we possess. And in an instant or two, billions of short messages and photos will be flying up to the telecommunication satellites and raining down back on Earth, transporting our digital emotions from virtually every inhabited spot of the planet to virtually any other one. This is our brave new world, this has become our lifestyle and we wouldn’t change a bit of it. Or would we?

In 2013, Edward Snowden woke us up brutally from this digital frenzy after leaking classified documents of the US National Security Agency. And in a Christmas message broadcast by a British TV channel, the American whistle-blower warned us again about the risks inherent in the way we use modern technology.

“A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all,” Snowden said. “They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought. And that’s a problem, because privacy matters.” The former employee of the NSA reminded us that, in 2013, we learned that governments had introduced a system of mass surveillance that watches everything we do.

Snowden also pointed out that the writer George Orwell warned decades ago – in his science fiction novel “1984”- about the dangers of this kind of mass gathering of information; but he added that the cameras installed by Orwell’s “Big Brother” were nothing compared to what is going on today. Referring to the worldwide spread of smartphones with GPS sensors, the former NSA agent warned: “We have sensors in our pockets that follow us wherever we go.”

While his revelations have triggered an international scandal and the outrage of governments such as the Brazilians and the Germans, Edward Snowden said that his only aim was generating a public debate and galvanising people into action. “Remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying”, the 30-year-old American computer specialist advised us.

How deeply do you feel concerned about Snowden’s warnings? Are you ready to add your voice to the increasing number of people claiming the right to online privacy? Where do you stand on the issue of the regulation of the use of personal data? Do these questions even matter for you? As you ponder upon the answers, the growing body of digital dilemmas – as we, here at euronews, have called them – will continue to expand its contours in 2014, confronting us with our responsibilities as citizens, as parents, as human beings.

Picture this body as a multi-dimensional monster. Considering all its facets – technological, organisational, biological, human, etc. – is, in itself, a challenging task, as it requires skills and expertise from many disciplines. Check out the website of Gerd Leonhard, a media futurist, and you’ll understand what we mean.

Take, for instance, the human dimension of our virtual world. Hyper-connectivity opens so many new horizons, creates so many new opportunities. But it also changes the way ordinary people think about their lives. The so-called FoMo (fear of missing out) syndrome reflects the anxieties of a younger generation whose members feel compelled to capture instantly everything they do and see.

Leonhard asks how we – as linear beings – will cope with the tremendous gain in the flow of real-time information: “What far-reaching implications will these developments have? How will we keep up with thousands of real-time data feeds, the ever-increasing volume, variety and depth of input, the tsunami of incoming communications and the rapidly improving smartness – and increasingly deep intelligence – of software, devices and machines? Will humans need to be ‘augmented’, soon, in order to keep up, and if so, where will this take us?” Fascinating questions!

Consider Gerd Leonhard’s issue n° 6, on his list of speaking topics for 2014: “Digital obesity, digital detox, and the coming ‘joy of missing out’: will ‘offline’ become the new luxury?” The German-born futurist observes that “increasingly, people are complaining about ‘the tyranny of connectivity’, about getting bloated with information and being overloaded with data, media, updates and notifications. There now is so much of everything, and it all ‘tastes’ so good, and the price is right (well, mostly…zero), so we just keep eating more of it. The noise of online content and the buzz of conversations are deafening, and it seems that the signal-to-noise ratio has never been lower.” Leonhard names the risk he identifies here as “digital obesity” and points towards two contemporary nascent trends: “de-teching and disconnecting”.

Like other pundits exploring the uncharted waters of an exponentially expanding digital world, Leonhard observes first, then challenges his readers: “Just like physical obesity is a serious and major problem (with reportedly some 42% of the US population being afflicted by it), being digitally obese may lead to brain malfunctions, sleep disorders, general mental confusion and many other quite serious side effects which need to be considered. So does technology still mean pure empowerment for consumers, mostly, or is it really becoming a tool for a new kind of enslavement – or both? And if we had to consider this question, could we actually live ‘off the grid’ and still function in a networked society? How do we strike the balance?” Again, fascinating questions!

Way before Leonhard’s warnings on digital obesity, in their 2008 seminal article “Your iBrain: How Technology Changes the Way we Think” Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan had opened our eyes on what they called the “techno-brain burnout”, or the digital media’s influence on our physiology.

“Daily exposure to high technology”, they wrote, “computers, smart phones, video games, search engines such as Google and Yahoo – stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening old ones. Because of the current technological revolution, our brains are evolving right now – at a speed like never before.”

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques, the two leading American neuroscientists explored how the brain is affected by the state of “continuous partial attention” we – and, increasingly, our children – live in. They have discovered that, as the “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is stimulated and short-term memory is dominating, this can result in a state of stress that can also have very serious physiological consequences for the body.” As the brain is forced to constantly review and analyse new information, via a Google search or scanning Facebook, it can enter what Small and Vorgan call the “techno-brain burnout.” This means that some of the brain centres in control of mood and thought are being altered, but we have no way of knowing the long-term effects of this change.

Don’t succumb to pessimism! And brace yourselves for more and more digital dilemmas in 2014. They will carry on shaping the connected human’s zeitgeist.

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