“I want to have a feeling; I need to send a tweet”. Well, when you put it that way (and the panellists at last week’s Future Laboratory event on digital addiction did) then the Internet really does start to seem like a scary place where weird things happen to our brains. While it’s one thing to watch a toddler try to “swipe” onto a new TV channel, just like they’re accustomed to on their parents’ iPhones. Or even lose your keys and instinctively think of texting them to see where they are. These are purely practical changes that are the result of new problem-solving methods given to us by technology. It seems like another thing entirely to look to the Internet for emotional sustenance.
The panel chair, Nik Roope, wondered why we question the pleasure of sharing? Nik argued that sharing our thoughts, stories and views with other people is a natural human behaviour, and the Internet has merely provided another platform for us to do that. While I agree in theory, there is a subtle difference between online and offline sharing that I think is important to take note of. Offline we share and make emotional connections with people we know (friends and family), or with whom we have a shared context (the person next to us on a flight or the hot guy at a friend’s party). Either way, the things we share offline are generally part of a conversation – of a time, location and context specific narrative. Online, however, we are often just shouting into the darkness and waiting for a reaction, hoping for an emotion.
It’s this uncertainty of response which, I believe, leads to what The Future Laboratory are calling ‘The New Mass Addiction’. Every tweet, every shout into the darkness is a gamble. Will anyone reply? Will anyone ‘like’ or re-Tweet? Will I win? Will I experience that addictive flood of dopamine associated with feelings of enjoyment, reinforcement and, most importantly, reward? It’s this fixation on reward which differentiates real-life sharing with online sharing and which is driving not a generational divide but an attitudinal and behavioural divide between digital people and everyone else. When reward replaces relationships as a key social driver, then surely the way people behave changes dramatically?
“I want to have a feeling; I need to send a tweet” is a perfect articulation of this new mindset. Is it scary? Only to those of us who remember what Nik Roope termed our “pre-Internet brains”. To everyone else, and digital natives especially, it’s the new normal and part of a complex mix of offline and online experiences that make up their world view. It’s one of those rare moments where we can observe human evolution in action as a new strand of our species emerges. It’s beautiful. As Darwin wrote over 150 years ago, “whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved”. The Internet is re-wiring the way we think, behave and experience emotion. We are being evolved and only the dinosaurs will fight it.