Tech pushes our evolution – but turning off saves relationships

Admittedly, I devote an undue amount of my time and attention to devices like my phone, time and attention that I could otherwise be devoting to my personal relationships. As it turns out I’m not alone. According to the UK communications regulator, Ofcom, consumers are now spending a full 24 hours per week online. When you exclude time sleeping, we are on course to spend one fifth of our waking lives conducting our affairs via some form of digital proxy.

The report goes on to state that while most people recognise that the benefits of being online outweigh the disadvantages “many acknowledge that ubiquitous internet access is disrupting the quality of human relationships”. If true, these findings could be revealing more about society than just the ways in which our communication habits are changing. It could be evidence of how we as a species might be about to evolve.

Trusting technology to take over many of our basic daily tasks such as banking or shopping makes sense. But when it comes to how we interact with one another, communicating via screens is a bad idea. We predominantly communicate verbally via devices, and the reality is that verbal communication is a skill that the vast majority of us are poor at.

Research shows that about 10% of the way in which one human interprets what another human is saying is based on how that person receives verbal communication, our words. That means that 90% of what we intend to say gets lost in translation when we send an email, text or instant message. This is fine when sharing concise, specific information but limiting once we want to say anything more complex. The growth of image and video-based communication has helped to somewhat address this issue however it comes with its own caveats given the level of control the message sender can exercise over what the receiver sees.

What is occurring here is evolutionary. In my opinion we are experiencing one of the single fastest mass re-wirings of the human brain that mankind has ever seen. As our speed of adoption and reliance on technology to communicate increases, our neural pathways will adapt to this behaviour, the long-term impact of which is difficult to predict.

What is evident is that we need to continue to treat technology with both curiosity and caution. We also need to do more to preserve the skills and attributes that define the essence of our humanity, enhancing our capacity to act empathetically as well as our ability to think independently.

Ofcom’s figures aside, common sense can tell you that the balance we are striking between time spent in the digital versus the real world is tilting and depending on your world view that might either delight or terrify you. As a parent I have a responsibility to my child to nurture their sense of consideration for others and teach them how to act empathetical towards the world. In order to do this, I have to set a good example and I certainly cannot do that with my head buried in my phone. I would encourage other parents to reflect on their own relationship with technology and if like me you feel you need to readjust the balance in your life, make a small gesture or conscious action.

This piece was originally published in the Irish Independent on September 11th 2018