Feb. 5, 2010 at 9:00 AM ET
Lately, Internet users have been poking fun at each other at record rates, using sites with names like EPIC FAIL to chronicle technological foibles and missteps. Perhaps they are laughing to stop from crying.
Technology letdowns such as dying cell phone batteries or lost computer files can to lead to everything from pesky annoyances to computer rage, clinical depression, or worse. A growing body of research suggests that the invasion of the digital age is literally rewiring our brains, eroding skills once considered essential for a happy adult life. Gadgets were supposed to make our lives easier and save us time. Instead, we are more stressed and have less time than ever. What is the cause of this epic failure?Millions of Americans were carried into the modern era by Walt Disney's "Carousel of Progress" ride, invented for the 1964 World's Fair. The ride offered a quick look at five eras in American history -- beginning with a housewife complaining about spending five hours doing laundry. In the last scene, "The glories of today" are revealed, with clean modern living and "a kitchen that all but runs itself." The happy result: seemingly boundless leisure time. Visitors left the ride humming "Great Big, Beautiful Tomorrow."
We're still waiting.
"Technology promised us extra time. Well, that didn't come true. We are shorter of time now, busier, then we've ever been as a society," said psychologist Michelle Weil, author of the book "Technostress."
Technology has filled our world with modern miracles -- instant global communication, frictionless commerce, information available to all for free and, most important, millions of lives saved and improved by medical science. But all this progress has not come without a price. It would be ignorant to argue that technology hasn't made the world better. But often we are blind to the fact that technology creates almost as many problems as it solves.
"We weren't prepared for that," Weil said. "We were prepared for a smooth ride literally. We were not prepared for more issues in our lives. We have enough issues."
Working in an office with a poor cell-phone signal. A laptop battery that won't hold a charge any longer. A car charger that short-circuits when the oversized coffee cup falls out of the cup-holder and spills. These daily headaches -- let's call them technoflubs -- have become a way of life. Stack them together in one bad day and you have something Weil called technology's version of a "bad hair day." String a few of those bad days together and you get something much worse.
"When gadgets let us down, we feel frustrated, stumped, upset, scared, we feel stupid, like we did something to mess it up, and we feel helpless," she said. "Those are all the same feelings you have when you are depressed. The issue is literally a dependency issue, and it works like any other kind of dependency on alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex. We have come to expect technology to do certain things for us, and when it fails -- which it does often -- and we have no clear answer, we become depressed."
And sometimes, says Professor Kent Norman of the University of Maryland, we rage. Five years ago, Norman introduced the world to the term "computer rage," following the viral success of a series of YouTube videos showing frustrated users smashing their suddenly impotent PCs into bits.
Failure by the numbers
There isn't great data available on the number of technoflubs that U.S. consumers encounter every day, but the Pew Internet and American Life Project took a stab at an estimate two years ago. Here are the sobering results.
Can't be fixed
What can consumers do when their gadget breaks? Generally nothing. Unlike old-fashioned mechanical devices, few electronic devices have user serviceable parts, making consumers even more helpless and vulnerable to failures.
"Think about a car. Your grandparents could fix basic problems that a Model T had. In fact, a prerequisite of owning a car was that you could fix it," said Lee Rainie, a Pew project spokesman. "Now, you just have to take a (broken gadget) into the store and ask for help."
And break, they will. You may love your simple phone, and that basic PC might be good enough for your mom to type letters and e-mail, but the idea of owning an appliance until it dies a natural life is antiquated. Given the perpetual upgrade cycles, software patches, network requirements and so on, gadgets are not built to last.
"If you have a phone you like and it breaks, you can't get that phone again; it's gone," Weil said. "You only have the choices they give you."
Even on days when our computers and gadgets don't fail us, the pressure is always there, Weil warns. Cell phone users spend many evenings glancing nervously at their battery strength, hoping the gadget will work long enough to accept that critical phone call on the commute home.
"We think about looking at our batteries more than we think about eating," Weil said. "You constantly have to bring the charger so you can plug it in in the car. You have to make sure you plug it in at night or you are going to have difficulty. It's another thing you have to think about all the time."
There are varying degrees of failure, of course. When a car breaks down in your driveway, it's far less serious than a breakdown in the middle of the Arizona desert. But if technostress seems to be growing, Rainie said, it's because we are taking far more trips through the digital desert these days.
"The problems that people have grow in urgency the more they rely on their technology," he said. "Our expectations for technology are growing. The frustration is in direct proportion to dependence on the instrument. Once you become used to perpetual contact with everybody, all of the sudden the loss of contact becomes a much more meaningful thing."
Richard Ling, a technology professor at the University of Copenhagen, has been studying the concept of constant contact for a decade. No longer do people call each other at home or at work, hoping to find them. Smart phone mean that calls, texts, and e-mails always find their targets. That means friends and family are never really separated.
"This is a constant conversation we are in, an ongoing dialog," Ling said. "I know what's going on with people I care about at a different level now. I know what's in the refrigerator at my friend's house."
Some consequences of this are obvious -- the drunken text or the raging e-mail that we regret moments after sending. In the past, time and distance might have served the function of "taking a deep breath." No more. Instant communication means having to say you're sorry.
Other downsides might not be so apparent. Being in constant connection with friends, family or employers can be both stressful and demanding.
But in a more subtle way, constant contact seems to be cheating people of the ability to plan, and to commit to plans, Rainie said. Witness a typical negotiation among teens or 20-somethings about Friday night fun. The discussion begins with frantic texting during seventh period, or at 3:30 p.m. Rendezvous places are picked and discarded, and meeting times considered mere approximations. Texting continues as the night begins. "Running late," "I'll meet you inside," and then, "It's lame here, let's go the other bar instead." The mental satisfaction of having a plan come together never arrives.
'Continuous partial attention'
Some experts think these subtle changes are causing great harm to our neurological well-being. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan made a series of dramatic claims about the way digital devices are rewiring young brains in their 2008 book "iBrain, Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind." Most of their assertions aren't pretty. Given that adults commonly consume two, three or even more gadgets at once now -- all while carrying on conversations with people – they are beginning to lose their ability to focus and concentrate, they say. They describe a phenomenon called "continuous partial attention," a state of divided attention which leaves people unable to perform tasks that require concentration. Worse, it leaves its victims less and less able to connect with and empathize with each other, they said.
"When our minds partially attend, and do so continuously, we scan for an opportunity for any type of contact at every given moment," they wrote. "(People) no longer have time to reflect, contemplate, or make thoughtful decisions. Instead, they exist in a sense of constant crisis -- on alert for a new contact or bit of exciting news or information at any moment." Under that kind of stress, the brain secretes cortisol and adrenaline, creating a temporary high followed by depression, leading to something the authors call "techno-brain burnout."
In children, the effects can be worse, they said. When face-to-face contact is replaced by excessive digital media, a child's neural circuits can atrophy and the brain may not develop normal interactive social skills. Small and Vorgan believe this is a big problem, and that a class of young heavy media users they call Digital Natives are suffering from extreme antisocial tendencies.
"Several studies in both children and adults ... tie frequent technology use to conditions such as ADD, ADHD, autism, depression, anxiety and even sociopathic behavior," they said.
The Dumbest Generation
Emory University English Professor Mark Bauerlein sees other risks in this phenomenon, and laments them in his book, "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. " He's worried that technology that was supposed to make our kids learn faster and smarter is actually robbing them of the ability to think.
"The Internet doesn't impart adult information; it crowds it out," he wrote. Students -- even top college students -- read rarely now, and the slang used for online chatting is eroding writing skills.
Bauerlein's work was featured in a new PBS documentary "Digital Nation," which premiered this week. The show took on the issue of divided attention, quoting professors who struggle to keep the interest and attention of students they know are playing with Facebook during class. While the professors complained, students asserted that they were perfectly capable of effectively multitasking.
Hardly, Bauerlein argues. Students may manage to pass tests in school, but thanks to distractions the students retain little knowledge required for culture, citizenship or good consumerism. The reason Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segment -- when random adults seem unable to answer basic questions such as how many stars are on the U.S. flag -- is so funny is because it's true.
Sticking up for tech
There are many valid defenses for technology. It's just a tool, of course -- the Internet doesn't kill brains, people kill brains. Obviously, a tool that allows people to find virtually any fact ever known within a few seconds can help make people a lot smarter.
Even Weil, the "Technostress" author, is quick to say that technology is not the problem: "The problem is the way people use technology, and the expectations they have for it," she said.
People have come to depend too much on gadgets, and fail to plan for the logical possibility that they will occasionally break down. Having simple backup plans in place – in case my phone dies, I'll meet you at 8 – can relieve much of the dependency-related stress.
Meanwhile, too much alcohol, too much chocolate cake, too much exercise -- all these things can be bad for people, just like too much digital exposure. Most technology reporters who cover the dark side of the Web -- porn, gambling, privacy, electronic crime -- eventually come around to the notion that technology changes nothing. All those bad habits existed before the Web and continue to exist in spite of the Web. It's fair to ask, then, where the fault lies for "The Dumbest Generation" -- with overexposure to digital media, or with adults who don't force the kids to turn off the laptops and listen once in a while.
Blaming youth would be a mistake, too, as brain studies show the deleterious effect of too much digital media impacts all ages. In fact, older people are less equipped to deal with overstimulation and hyperconnectivity.
Meanwhile, Ling offers this reminder: Global connectivity creates millions of small success stories every day. Unlike television, which can be isolating, cell phone technology can help create feelings of true intimacy.
This week, his daughter bought her first computer and called him on her way out of the store.
"I was able to share that exact moment with her, even though she was 2,000 miles away (at school). Now that was wonderful," he said.
Note: An earlier version of this column said the transistor was invented in 1964. As readers have correctly pointed out, that was an epic failure -- it was invented in 1947.