Technology Addiction Will Lead to Our Evolution—or Enslavement

Our minds, bodies, and senses have evolved to live in one world at a time, but we're all trying to live in two--a physical world and a virtual one.


In a post last month, I cited mounting evidence that electronic devices are hijacking the pleasure-creating circuits in our brains, giving rise to compulsive behavior in many users. This has created a growing number of people who become prisoners to virtual worlds while they engage in dangerous activities in the physical world. The results are disturbing.

For the past 150,000 generations, evolution has designed our minds, brains, and body to live in only one world at a time. When we attempt to live in two simultaneously -- the physical and the virtual -- the consequences can be very serious.

It can be great to pop in the ear buds, turn on the music, and answer emails or study for an exam. But there are times when we should eschew that duality/simultaneous experience -- even avoid it at all costs.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that in the past year more than 3,000 people lost their lives in accidents related to distracted driving. As a point of reference, in 2009 there were 10,839 fatalities attributed to driving while intoxicated. Texting was cited as the probable cause in the 2010 Gray Summit, Missouri, school bus accident that killed two and injured 37. Texting was also the probable cause of the Metrolink train crash that killed 25 and injured another 135. And hospitals are having trouble controlling the inappropriate use of electronic devices in operating rooms. In one case, a neurosurgeon who made ten phone calls during an operation caused partial paralysis in a patient.

As with any addiction, there are no simple solutions to Internet Compulsion Disorder, or ICD.  Electronic devices certainly have their place in "dangerous" physical environments. For example, the FAA recently approved the cockpit use of iPads for American Airlines pilots to serve as electronic flight bags, replacing nearly 40 pounds of operating manuals, checklists, navigation charts, etc. (Angry Birds, of course, comes along for the ride.) On the other hand, the National Transportation Safety Board justifiably believes that the use of all portable electronic devices while operating automobiles should be banned.

In the health care environment, there are clearly times when having iPads and computers in operating rooms can save lives by providing access to important medical records and controlling critical processes, and other times when ICD can threaten those same lives.

Banning the use of these devices in life-threatening situations would be logical. And enforcing the ban with, say, the equivalent of drunk driving checkpoints on New Year's Eve would not be technologically difficult.

But a ban could also lead to an Orwellian state. Think of sensing cell phones as they switch between cell phone towers while drivers speed down the freeway. Data can be gathered not only on whether people are using their cell phone while driving but the speed they are traveling while doing so. A few video cameras placed strategically at intersections and on the freeway would eliminate alibis. Hospitals already use electronic surveillance to watch for doctors and nurses who don't wash their hands. Wi-Fi networks can be used in hospitals to check up on them in operating rooms. For example, hospitals could randomly monitor the use of smart devices in operating rooms to make sure nurses and doctors aren't updating Facebook profiles. This is only one step up from the hand hygiene monitors. Of course, practical enforcement would be vigorously opposed and would take years to implement.

Still, it is important for all of us to realize that our minds, senses, and bodies have evolved to live in one world at a time. If we had evolved to live in two worlds simultaneously, we would probably look very different. Consider our sense of hearing. Twenty-five years ago, when I used to powder ski in Canada, the guides forbade the use of the Sony Walkman. They wanted us to be able to hear an avalanche or the cry of a person who fell into a tree well. But today millions of people run, ride bikes, and step off curbs without the aid of auditory warnings, their ears clogged by the sounds of heavy metal.

If natural selection were allowed to work for a long enough time, possibly avalanches, attacks by predators, automobile, pedestrian, and bicycle accidents might select for homo sapiens with four ears -- two for music and talk and two for sensing threats. Preposterous? Maybe not. Nature has been known to adjust. Consider the anableps anableps, a fish that swims at the surface with two sets of eyes, one for looking both up (for protection from predators), and one for looking down (for food). It's a very sensible and truly amazing phenomenon. If four eyes for fish, why not for humans, too: two for reading email and two for watching the road? Or four ears -- two for danger and another pair for pleasure; or two arms for texting and two for driving.

If we can wait for evolution to figure this out, we might be safe. Until we do, I hope we can avoid both Orwell and accidents by using good judgment to rein in dangerous and compulsive behavior. The chances are slim but one can always hope. If I had to make a bet? Orwell.

Image: Pavel Ignatov/Shutterstock