Consumer technology evolves fast. It’s hard to believe that just two years ago, the Apple iPhone, Asus Eee PC, Amazon Kindle and Twitter didn’t exist. Only college students were on Facebook. And Bill Gates still worked at Microsoft.
What’s harder to fathom is our own evolution. As technology changes, technology changes us — how our minds and bodies physically work. It’s not evolution, exactly. Call it culturally induced mutation.
What’s happening to us?
Super thumbs. Our thumbs were designed originally for climbing trees, and mutated in order to help us make, then throw, spears and do other tasks. Now, we use our thumbs mainly for texting. Constant fast-typing on a cell phone has re-wired the circuitry of our minds, and pumped up the muscles in our hands and forearms to favor fast thumb-typing skills.
Faster fingers. When I was in high school, I took typing class. Now, kids entering high school can already type 100 words per minute. They may have good form or bad, and might be able to touch type, or they may not. But they can type. Everyone can type now. And fast. We all simply do so much of it that our bodies and minds have adapted to the peculiar act of banging out letters on a keyboard. It’s like breathing now.
Outsourced knowledge. Back in the day, you became educated by “learning” facts and ideas, which you carried around in your brain. Now, there’s just way too much information to carry around. Instead we “outsource” data storage from our brains to our phones, hard disks or the Internet itself. Becoming educated now requires that you “unlearn” or outsource a lot of trivia — and know how to get at it quickly — so you can free up limited wetware space for the stuff you really need to know.
Tolerance for repetitive stress. Back in the 1990s, everyone seemed to be getting “carpal tunnel syndrome” (CTS), which is a repetitive stress injury from typing too much. People started wearing braces on their hands and company HR departments started training employees on how to do goofy exercises every two hours to prevent CTS. Have you noticed that the whole problem seems to have largely vanished? As a species, we’ve mostly adapted to sitting around typing. Sure, some people still get repetitive stress injuries. But the pandemic experts predicted in 1998 never materialized. We’ve mutated instead.
Screen tolerance, dependence. In the early days of the PC, people used to get eye strain and mind fatigue after looking at a screen for four hours. In China, they consider 6 hours of screen time evidence of a computer addiction problem. I don’t know about you, but I’ve put in 6 hours of screen time by 10am, and keep going until well into the evening. My eyes are fine. Why? Because I’ve mutated like just about everyone else into some screen-dependent freak.
Pocket vibration sensitivity. When people are unfortunate enough to lose a limb — say, an arm or a leg — they often experience what’s known as “phantom limb syndrome.” They continue to “feel” the limb long after it’s been removed. The reason for this is that humans devote areas of the brain to perceive sensations from all body parts. After the limb is removed, the associated area of the brain is still active. Nowadays, our brains have no doubt carved out some quality cranial tissue devoted to perceiving a vibrating phone in our pockets. Sometimes, when the phone isn’t in our pockets we think we feel it vibrating. What that means is that the use of vibrating cell phones has physically altered our brains. And while we’re on the subject, it’s likely that our brains have mapped out special regions for our mice, keyboards, media players and more. Our brain thinks our gadgets are body parts.
Shortened attention spans. It’s something of a cliché that screens — TVs, PCs and cell phones — shorten attention spans. But the fact is that, uh… I’m sorry, what was I saying?
Heightened CGI perceptiveness. I remember watching the original “Star Wars” and thinking all those special effects were indistinguishable from what the real thing would look like. I had the same impression when I saw “Jurassic Park,” the “Hulk” and “King Kong.” But when I look at older CGI movies now, they look absurdly fake and the CGI is easily detectable. What’s happening here is that we’re physically building up in our brains the capacity to notice the difference between computer-generated objects and real ones.
All these physical changes result directly from new technology that has emerged in just the past 15 years. How will we have been altered in 50 years? 500 years? Let’s face it. We’re evolving. But into what?