What is the first thing you look at in the morning? What is the last thing you see before you go to sleep at night? Many of us would hesitate in answering and probably not want to admit that the answer is the smartphone. We use it constantly to scroll through our favourite social-media feed to look at memes, funny videos about cats, news stories, fake stories, true stories, questionable stories, gaming videos, movie clips or a quick five-second video by some stranger we’ve never seen before and will never see again.
The internet has changed a lot since we first started using it. At the start, we enjoyed our ability to access whatever we wanted and there was a sense of freedom. It felt like the wild west, a frontier in our homes and at our office desk. It was not always that easy to navigate but generally we could find the content we were looking for, provided by people who were as enthusiastic about this new frontier as we were.
The internet we now use is largely curated and fed to us in streams of information that are designed to keep us engaged and addicted. Most of the content is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful social-media corporations that carefully control what we can access. They monitor just about every aspect of our online activity, which is why what we see or read appears so repetitive.
In other words, they develop a profile of us using algorithms that reinforce our biases and cut us off from other sources of information. Studies show that these systems constantly make people feel anger, fear and anxiety. The more negative that people feel, the more they will engage with others of like mind, while creating more page clicks that translate into greater advertising revenue. That’s money that used to go to our local media – newspapers, radio and television – that is now concentrated in the hands of a few multi-billionaires. And that’s why we don’t know as much about what is happening in our society as we used to.
Almost all content on the internet these days consists of short snippets of information. Twenty years ago, it was blogs and written content that people shared with one another. Now the content is sized down to shorter posts and more often into image-captioned memes. Services like Twitter started regulating the size of posts to a mere 140 characters so people could read something quickly and respond instantly.
In the beginning, it was not so easy to share videos online. Now, anyone can instantly share a video on a wide variety of platforms. Now many people think they are the star of their own TV show, and they constantly post their every move, meal or thought on Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat. These posts are ever smaller and shorter, feeding into and causing our diminishing attention spans.
Numerous studies connect these instantly gratifying blasts to parts of our brain that create a positive feeling. It lasts just for a moment, but it is enough to briefly make us feel good just as a drug would. Thus, the source of our addiction.
Now, with a phone in our hand, we repetitively reward our brains with this drug, constantly scrolling through endless feeds. This is having a terrible effect on our mental health and prevents us from engaging in creative thought and productive activity.
I grew up in the 1980s without internet. My siblings, friends and I did not have much exposure to the outside world, much less the latest trends in music, fashion, movies or TV shows. We were usually years and sometimes decades behind the rest of North America. The corporate world, governments and advertisers did not really get to us. We spent most of our time outside doing things, playing, working and on the land harvesting food.
We are no longer isolated. Technology has put us, in the space of a generation, within reach of governments, corporations and social media. We are constantly in touch with each other and the wider world. We expose the most intimate parts of ourselves in mindless and endless chatter that has eliminated any notion of privacy. People tell the world what they had for breakfast, what they did last night, who they are fighting with, who they hate, who they love and how hurt they are.
But all those thoughts and actions we post online eventually end up hurting us and our communities while creating huge profits and power for the social-media controllers of our personal content. Welcome to the Brave New World.