What technology has taken from us

“What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.” ~ Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

I work with digital natives every day, and I’ve seen no evidence that social skills have diminished. I’ve seen no evidence that friendships have become less important, or that conflict management skills are any worse than they’ve been in the past.

In fact, technology has allowed young people to be more creative in how they interact than any generation before. More creativity can only be good. To rewind technology would be a shortsighted wish.

But give the typical smartphone user a slow wireless connection, and you get anguish that would have been unimaginable just ten years ago.

Transport a person from the year 1850 into a modern airplane and he’ll tell you about the miracle he just experienced. Today’s person is more likely to complain about the crying baby in the seat behind him.

Sapolsky goes on:

“Once, during a concert of cathedral organ music, as I sat getting gooseflesh amid that tsunami of sound, I was struck with a thought: for a medieval peasant, this must have been the loudest human-made sound they ever experienced, awe-inspiring in now-unimaginable ways. No wonder they signed up for the religion being proffered. And now we are constantly pummeled with sounds that dwarf quaint organs. Once, hunter-gatherers might chance upon honey from a beehive and thus briefly satisfy a hardwired food craving. And now we have hundreds of carefully designed commercial foods that supply a burst of sensation unmatched by some lowly natural food.


An emptiness comes from this combination of over-the-top nonnatural sources of reward and the inevitability of habituation; this is because unnaturally strong explosions of synthetic experience and sensation and pleasure evoke unnaturally strong degrees of habituation. This has two consequences. First, soon we barely notice the fleeting whispers of pleasure caused by leaves in autumn, or by the lingering glance of the right person, or by the promise of reward following a difficult, worthy task. And the other consequence is that we eventually habituate to even those artificial deluges of intensity. If we were designed by engineers, as we consumed more, we’d desire less. But our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume, the hungrier we get.”

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