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Are our brains really no match for our technology?

Ex-googler, Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Tech has a new article out in the New York Times proposing three solutions to help curb the harms of Big Tech

  1. Establish a new tax (a “downgrading tax”) on tech giants designed to a) make monetizing attention prohibitively expensive (more engagement and more time = more tax) and b) fund public education and quality journalism
  2. Develop new subscription services that empower and enable our offline lives (rather than replace them. These services would to compete with “free social media platforms that benefit from turning us into addicted, narcissistic extremists”)
  3. Support new technology that protects people from disinformation, malicious viral content, and tech-enabled distortions (e.g. deepfakes)

These suggestions move the ‘techlash’ (Big Tech backlash) beyond concerns over privacy, surveillance, and targeting. For Harris, these issues are important, but symptoms of a (more?) fundamental problem – the mismatch between the power of technology and the power of the human mind.

In a nutshell, Harris articulates a version of what psychologists have called the “maladapted mind” or mismatch hypothesis that suggests that the slow pace of human evolution and the fast pace of cultural change (including technology) means that our minds are better adapted to our hunter-gatherer Pleistocene past (where 95% of human evolution took place – the EEA – Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness) than to today’s fast-changing world. In short, digital technology has the capacity to overwhelm our prehistoric brains by exploiting the biases, vulnerabilities, and limitations of evolved human nature:

  • Our need for social validation renders us addicted to “likes”, which “destroy our attention spans”
  • Our Paleolithic brains are drawn to “outrage and angry tweets”, undermining rational democratic debate
  • Our susceptibility to attention-grabbing sensationalist content is exploited by content algorithms and automatic recommendation, leading to the proliferation of conspiracy theories and extremism
  • Our vulnerability to “radical content, incubated in insular online communities, would continue to inspire mass shootings”
  • Our fragile mental health is undermined by cyberbulling and online social pressure

But are our minds really no match for today’s technology? It’s an idea that has some support, but it depends on who you ask. Evolutionary psychologists may point to this “maladapted mind” or mismatch hypothesis that is understood as a major cause of psychopathology. Other psychologists will claim the human mind is extraordinarily adaptable and resilient. We learned to cope with the onslaught of printed misinformation and propaganda that arrived with the Gutenberg press, and we’ll learn to deal with digital disinformation. The mind is not fragile, it is anti-fragile.

Whichever side of the debate you land on, it’s difficult to disagree with Harris’ final point that what we need above all is a positive vision for technology that builds on human strengths (including our capacity for self-awareness, critical thinking, reasoned debate, and reflection), rather than obsesses over digital harms.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.