Why Digital Overload Is Now Central to the Human Condition

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A mom pushes a stroller down the sidewalk while Skyping. A family of four sits at the dinner table plugged into their cell phones with the TV blaring in the background. You get through two pages in a book before picking up your laptop and scrolling through a bottomless stream of new content.

Information technology has created a hyper-connected, over-stimulated, distracted and alienated world. We’ve been living long enough with internet-connected computers and other mobile devices to have begun to take it for granted.

But already the next wave is coming, and it promises to be even more immersive.

As our lives are increasingly augmented and infused with new digital technologies—intelligent search engines, AI assistants, smartwatches, in-home virtual reality, and the like—it only makes sense that the conversation about whether this is all okay will keep getting louder.


A new report from ZenithOptimedia estimates people spent eight hours a day consuming media in 2015, and a recent comScore study reported that the time individuals spent on smartphones consuming digital media increased by 90% from 2013 to 2015 in the US.

These numbers aren’t necessarily a threat to humanity though—we actually get pleasure from consuming new information. In fact, our brains are wired to prioritize it. Even receiving ordinary new pieces of information, like a text message or an email after refreshing your browser, triggers the brain to release dopamine.

Our fondness for new information alone isn’t anything novel. Only now, the volume of new information, and our access to it, has increased faster than our ability to process and balance it.

Countless op-ed pieces debate the implications of being plugged into technology around the clock—is it uselessly barraging humanity, or elevating it? Both sides make valid points.

Video producer Chris Milk believes that VR will be the great empathy-inducing machine of our time, allowing us to step into the shoes of others like never before.

But others argue immersive new technologies cause social isolation—an idea also explored in recent science fiction stories where people spend more time in virtual reality than reality.

Though to some the growing noise around this subject feels like we’re beating a dead horse, this dialogue and tension is itself deeply human. And it’s been an ongoing discussion since the dawn of the industrial age.

In the 21st century, the exchange of ideas and knowledge is increasingly a marker of individual value and capital. Some even claim knowledge exchange represents a new advanced form of capitalism, where the democratization of ideas and knowledge are driving a portion of economic growth in the information age.

Think of it like this—mass information access is one of the new technologies of the 21st century transforming our economy, similar to how the new machinery adopted by factories and farms while leaving the agricultural age and moving into the industrial age transformed the economy of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The power of knowledge in the 21st century makes its availability that much more tempting, but we’re still trying to understand how much of it we can handle, or how readily we want to be able to consume it.

It’s hoped new technologies, like artificial intelligence, will learn to find and even anticipate the information we most value. The problem may be less about the amount of information and more about how we sort through it to find the good stuff.

But make no mistake, new technologies will bring new worries. And the speed at which technology is moving is sure to increase anxiety and debate. shutterstock_317719976

This back and forth dialogue is basic to the human condition. It’s a critical part of how we adapt to technology and find harmony between the old and new.

Ultimately, we each have to choose how we interact with technology and what our own comfort levels with it are. The greater awareness and honesty we have about its strengths and weaknesses, the better we can make healthy decisions about how to use it in our own lives—individually and collectively.

As new technologies appear, this integration doesn’t happen overnight; it takes years of everyday use by everyday people. And yes, lots of op-eds hashing it out too.

What are your thoughts on digital overload? We'd love to hear them. You can comment here or tell us on twitter @SingularityHub and @DigitAlison

Image Source: Shutterstuck


Alison E. Berman
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Alison E. Berman

Staff Writer at Singularity University
Alison tells the stories of purpose-driven leaders and is fascinated by various intersections of technology and society. When not keeping a finger on the pulse of all things Singularity University, you'll likely find Alison in the woods sipping coffee and reading philosophy (new book recommendations are welcome).
Alison E. Berman
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Discussion — 5 Responses

  • Yolanda Canales Puente January 15, 2016 on 4:58 pm

    I don’t really know how much information we are really able to process. This article gave me food for thought and brought vividly to my mind what Holmes said to Watson about the brain-attic.

    I wonder if he was right…

    Arthur Conan Doyle

    “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

    ― Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

    Watson protested at the fact that Holmes should care nothing for the solar system.

    “What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

  • shnfy January 15, 2016 on 6:41 pm

    This is ‘Singularity’ Hub and you have entirely left the Singularity out of a discussion that is central to it.
    How will the years of integration that it takes for us to adapt to technologies be affected by exponential technology? Will we reach a breaking point at which point we simply won’t be able to adapt because the next paradigm shift will be too close? Will smaller groups and individuals adapt while others languish? What sort of radical consequences will that have for humanity? Your prescription, that ultimately it all comes down to the pace of society to adapt to what people find comfortable totally ignores the elephant in the room.

    • DSM shnfy January 15, 2016 on 11:44 pm

      Since the advent of civilisation humans have inflicted new dangers on their offspring and many have succumbed to such psychological or physical pitfalls, or simply failed to reproduce due to their exposure to the changes, this phenomena is selecting for those who can “ride the wave without getting dumped”. I expect this will continue even if it causes a significant contraction in the number of living humans before finally we cross into the singularity and the level of integration minds that have makes the idea of the individual irrelevant.

      • shnfy DSM January 16, 2016 on 9:25 pm

        It may prove to be the case that no person will be able to ride that wave, in which case the technological singularity is the terminus for all humans. I’m not convinced that exponential technology/knowledge is like the ‘new dangers’ you mention, that every generation has passed down. We’re nearing an epistomological crises where future generations will not only inherit our mess, they will have to transcend their biology and probably their ontology in order to survive it. Not only do individuals become irrelevant in such a situation: human beings in general become irrelevant. And if we/they fail to adapt into a transhuman/posthuman condition, will something else continue in our place?

  • Walt Stawicki January 28, 2016 on 11:33 am

    Im in the meatsuit camp in thinking that digital can only augment, never substitute for face to face ,electric field enmeshing, mirror neuron engaging presence. Maps always edit, omit, distort. Digital connects are maps, nothing more. As such they have informational constraints and biological incapacities. You cant learn to feel shen online , let alone master your own unity with intention. All the online apps? Crutches!. I call singularity the elephant thats not in the room, never will be, but we might just blow up the natural order in this manic rush to evade ourselves.