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Curmudgeon, Chicken Little or Cognoscenti?

Apparently I’m old and out of step. Curmudgeonly, even. And this is from people of my own generation. My previous column about the potential shallowness encouraged by social media drew a few comments that indicated I was just being a grumpy old man. One was from an old industry friend – Brett Tabke:

“The rest of the article is like out of the 70’s in that it is devoid of the reality that is the uber-me generation. The selfie is only a reflection of their inward focus.”

The other was from Monica Emrich, whom I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting:

” ’Social Media Is Barely Skin-Deep.’ ho hum. History shows: when new medium hits, civilization as we know it is over.”

These comments seem to telling me, “Relax. You just don’t understand because you’re too old. Everything will be great.” And, if that’s true, I’d be okay with that. I’m more than willing to be proven a doddering old fool if it means technology is ushering us into a new era of human greatness.

But what if this time is different? What if Monica’s facetious comment actually nailed it? Maybe civilization as we know it will be over. The important part of this is “as we know it.” Every technological disruption unleashes a wave of creative destruction that pushes civilization in a new direction. We seem to blindly assume it will always go in the right direction. And it is true that technology has generally elevated the human race. But not uniformly – and not consistently. What if this shift is different? What if we become less than what we were? It can happen. Brexit – Xenophobia – Trump – Populism, all these things are surfing on the tides of new technology.

Here’s the problem. There are some aspects of technology that we’ve never had to deal with before – at least, not at this scale. One these aspects (other aspects will no doubt be the topic of a future Media Insider) is that technology is now immersive and ubiquitous. It creates an alternate reality for us, and it has done in it in a few short decades. Why is this dangerous? It’s dangerous because evolution has not equipped us to deal with this new reality. In the past, when there has been a shift in our physical reality, it has taken place over several generations. Natural selection had the time to reshape the human genome to survive and eventually thrive in this new reality. Along the way, we acquired checks and balances that would allow us to deal with the potentially negative impacts of the environment.

But our new reality is different. It’s happen in the space of a single generation. There is no way we could have acquired natural defenses against it. We are operating in an environment we have been untested for. The consequences are yet to be discovered.

No, your response might be to say that, “Yes, evolution doesn’t move this quickly, but out brains can. They are elastic and malleable.” This is true, but there’s a big “but” that lies hidden in this approach. Our brains rewire to be a better match their environment. This is one of the things that humans excel at. But this rewiring happens on top of a primitive platform with some built in limitations. The assumption is that a better match with our environment provides a better chance for survival of the species.

But what if technology is throwing us a curve ball in this case? No matter what the environment we have adapted to, there has been one constant: The history of humans depends on our success in living together. We have evolved to be social animals but that evolution is predicated on the assumption that our socializing would take place face-to-face. Technology is artificially decoupling our social interactions from the very definition of society that we have evolved to be able to handle. A recent Wharton interview with Eden Collinsworth sounds the same alarm bells.

“The frontal lobes, which are the part of the brain that puts things in perspective and allows you to be empathetic, are constantly evolving. But it is less likely to evolve and develop those skills if you are in front of a screen. In other words, those skills come into play when you have a face-to-face interaction with someone. You can observe facial gestures. You can hear the intonation of a voice. You’re more likely to behave moderately in that exchange, unless it’s a just a knock-down, drag-out fight.”

Collinsworth’s premise – which is covered in her new book, Behaving Badly – is that this artificial reality is changing our concepts of morality and ethics. She reminds us the two are interlinked, but they are not the same thing. Morality is our own personal code of conduct. Ethics are a shared code that society depends on to instill a general sense of fairness. Collinsworth believes both are largely learned from the context of our culture. And she worries that a culture that is decoupled from the physical reality we have evolved to operate in may have dire consequences.

The fact is that if our morality and ethics are intended to keep us socially more cohesive, this works best in a face-to-face context. In an extreme example of this, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former paratrooper and professor of psychology at West Point, showed how our resistance to killing another human in combat is inversely related to our physical distance from them. The closer we are to them, the more resistant we are to the idea of killing them. This makes sense in an evolutionary environment where all combat was hand-to-hand. But today, the killer could be in a drone flight control center thousands of miles from his or her intended target.

This evolved constraint on unethical behavior – the social check and balance of being physically close to the people we’re engaging with – is important. And while the application of the two examples I’ve cited; One – the self-absorbed behavior on social networks – and Two – the moral landscape of a drone strike operator, may seem magnitudes apart in terms of culpability, the underlying neural machinery is related. What we believe is right and wrong is determined by a moral compass set to the bearings of our environment. The fundamental workings of that compass assumed we would be face-to-face with the people we have to deal with. But thanks to technology, that’s no longer the case.

Maybe Brett and Monica are right. Maybe I’m just being alarmist. But if not, we’d better start paying more attention. Because civilization “as we know it” may be ending.