In a way, we're all living in the matrix: moving around within an illusion of freedom when really our lives are dictated by technology.
40-odd years ago, there was no such thing as a cell phone, and the only computers in existence took up entire rooms. Then the World Wide Web was born.
15 years ago, the iPhone was just a seed of a dream in Steve Jobs' mind. But today, if you're reading this, you have access to countless screens and endless amounts of information; and you probably have a phone in your pocket that you can't be separated from without experiencing a cold rush of panic. Like it or not, you live in the digital age.
Everything is happening so fast these days; it's hard to find the time to seriously question how technology has altered the fabric of our realities. But here are four major ways the Internet has made our minds different from how they were before—so much so that we can never go back.
1. We never have to wonder about anything
Once upon a time, if you were sitting at dinner and a question came up about, say, climate change or the effects of a certain drug, you would have to either find someone who knew the answer or wait until a library opened. Then you'd have to go there and parse through the Dewey Decimal System until you found a volume that might be able to provide the answer.
Today, we all have any piece of information, no matter how small or obscure, quite literally at our fingertips. So we should be smarter than ever, right? But all this instantly accessible information is coming at a price. One study found that millennials have even worse memories than seniors; and a recent Columbia University study revealed that if people feel they will be able to look up something in the future, they'll be less likely to remember it.
In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that technology is making us stupider, less likely to think critically and retain the information we need. Part of this is because every time we go online, we are confronted with billions of sources vying for our attention, making it difficult to deploy the kind of focused concentration needed to synthesize and reflect on information.
Also, now that we have endless information at our fingertips, many people have proposed that we may be less curious than ever, less inclined to come up with original ideas. However, curiosity is a fluid entity, and though the Internet offers more resources than ever, that also means that more people are creating content than ever before. And new innovative technologies are cropping up every day, revealing that although the Internet might be making some of us stupider, it's also a fertile breeding ground for incredible, world-changing inventions and unprecedentedly viral content.
2. We're more interconnected—and lonelier than ever
Once upon a time, you had to call someone up to speak to them, but now you can see what any of your friends are doing at any time. Instagram and Snapchat stories make it possible to share intimate images of our lives on a wide scale with huge audiences at any time; and online algorithms make it so that whatever you post will never really be gone from the Internet, even if you delete it. We can see the daily coffee choices and midnight tearstained selfies of our favorite stars; we can hit up old friends from across the globe with a single Facebook search.
Humans have always been hard-wired for connection, desperately looking for kinship and community, and so it makes sense that the Internet has become so addictive. Every ping, alert, and notification provokes the same kind of dopamine rush that comes from an expression of love and friendship. On the other hand, cyberbullying and persistently comparing oneself to others in the virtual sphere can both have very adverse effects in the real world.
Some studies have proposed that social media increases levels of loneliness. One found that heavy Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use can contribute to depression in young adults. Excessive time on Facebook has also been found to be associated with poor physical health and life satisfaction. On the other hand, social media has presented an opportunity for isolated adults and senior citizens to reach out and connect; and online fan and lifestyle communities provide oases for people all over the world.
Image via Business Insider
For better or for worse, the Internet has changed the way we connect. It's also changed the way we love. 26 million matches are made every day on dating apps, and roughly 13% of people who met on dating apps married. And phones allow us to communicate with anyone at any moment of the day, creating whole new rules and expectations for relationships, making them altogether more interactive and involved than they once were. Plus, pornography is fundamentally changing the way we have sex, with
many studies revealing that it's lowering sex drives and creating unrealistic expectations across the board.
It's the same for work: a Fortune study found that the average white-collar worker spends three hours per day checking emails. This comes part and parcel with the gig economy, that staple of Millennial culture built on perpetual interconnectedness and 24/7 "hustle"—a phenomenon that often leads to burnout.
3. We can have more than one reality—or can hide inside our own worlds more easily than ever
The Internet has made it easier than ever to craft false personas and to embody illusory identities. We can use Photoshop to alter our appearances; we can leverage small talents to viral fame and huge monetary gains, and we can completely escape our world in exchange for online communities and ever-growing virtual and augmented reality options.
The Internet is also altering our perceptions of reality. Although people once thought that interconnected online communities would facilitate the sharing of diverse viewpoints, it has turned out that social media allows us to access echo chambers even more isolated and partisan than what we'd see in our real lives.
In short, we're all at risk of being catfished.
4. Many of us are completely addicted
When was the last time you went a day without checking your phone? A week? And do you think that if you needed to, you could quit? Most likely, the answer is no, so you'd better believe it: you're addicted to technology. But you're not alone. A 2017 study found that 210 million people may be addicted worldwide.
There are five primary types of Internet addictions: cybersexual (porn) addiction, net compulsions (online shopping), cyber relationships (online dating), gaming, and information seeking (surfing). In recent years, internet addiction rehab has grown in popularity. The majority of people with legitimate internet addiction problems are men in their teens to late thirties, but it's likely that we all suffer from this to some extent.
Image via the Fix
Although the Internet is changing everything about our lives, ultimately, there is no clear consensus on whether these changes are for the worse or the better. But the changes will be growing more extreme over the years. Moore's Law proposes that, essentially, overall technological processing power will double each year, indefinitely—meaning that technology will continue to advance at an unimaginable rate. If the past twenty years have given us iPhones, what will the next twenty bring? The next hundred, if we make it that far without global warming ending everything?
Only time will tell. We won't be the same—but then again, we were never meant to remain stagnant as a species. Change and chaos are the laws of the human race, and as a species, we've always been obsessed with progress.
Some theorists believe that technological progress will only end when we create an operating system more intelligent than we, in a revelatory event called the singularity. If this happens, the AI could decide to eliminate us. That's another story—but until then, the sky is the limit for innovators and consumers everywhere.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Follow her on Twitter @edenarielmusic.