The Digital Era: Challenges for the Modern Mind

The digital media are the new interface between mind and world. They enable us to gain instant access to an infinitely expandable collective memory system. This is an indispensable breakthrough, but has the potential to seriously violate the ancient co-evolutionary pact between brain and culture which has kept the rate of cultural and technological change within tolerable limits. Traditional cultures, with all their flaws, stayed well within the adaptive capacities of the individual brain. However, the recent explosion of digital culture has placed all forms of traditional culture under serious challenge.

The principal challenge is a cognitive one: the economic system is increasingly tethered to a machine-driven agenda that either ignores or downgrades the most basic needs of the human mind. The result is a governance system that is out of control, in which success depends upon fitting the individual mind to a largely machine-driven agenda, rather than vice versa.

Three especially serious concerns stand out: (1) how to maintain the autonomy of the individual mind in the context of massive and sophisticated external programming; (2) how to construct networks of trust in an environment of anonymity and manipulation; and (3) how to place the most basic needs of the human mind at the top of our list of governance priorities.

The digital media are the new interface between mind and world. They cannot be avoided because they have become essential for survival. They enable us to gain instant access to an infinitely expandable collective memory system. Every corner of the world has been reached by this system, through cell phone networks and the Internet.

This is an indispensable breakthrough, but it is also disturbing and disorienting. It represents a massive change in human interconnectivity that comes with intellectual and emotional baggage. All forms of traditional culture are under challenge. It is fair to say that our conception of human nature itself is also under challenge.1

This is a revolution, perhaps one of the greatest in human history, and we are in the middle of it. But it is not so much a political or economic revolution as it is a cognitive revolution. The new media are aimed at the mind. They are interconnected with the sense organs. They aim their sophisticated, carefully engineered messages directly at the memory systems of the brain. They actually restructure memory, changing both the storage and retrieval systems we depend upon, and they are addressed directly to the source of our experience, and aimed at consciousness itself.

Moreover, the digital media are omnipresent. The old religions and ideologies enforced influence by means of daily rituals, sermons of an hour or so once a week, and in small numbers of books and pamphlets, but their available means of influencing people were very limited besides the tools available to the new media. For much of humanity today, the media are present every hour of the day, in the bedroom, living room, and boardroom; on screens in subway stations, airports, and store windows; on buses and automobiles; and in schoolrooms and offices. Smartphones are in our pockets; laptops and tablets are in our briefcases and backpacks. Wearable devices are already appearing, and we are soon going to see flexible new micro-devices insinuated into the fabric of our bodies and clothes.

Politicians are using the new media for self-promotion, rather than seeing them as a serious challenge that might require a major adjustment to our political system. Educators are being forced to reconsider what they should be doing with the new media, but they have no visible plan at this point, at least none that is not tainted by self-interest, whether in the massive revenue-generation opportunities afforded by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), or in fundraising and personal careerism.

The revolution has just begun, and counter-revolutions are inevitable. We should not be surprised if reactionary movements gain momentum. The new media are a central component in the rewiring of human society by machines, and the replacement of human work with robots that comply more easily with highly centralized systems of control. There will inevitably be pressure to decentralize control, in such phenomena as hacking, leaks, whistleblowing, and deliberately decentralizing Internet projects like Wikipedia. But there is also continuing pressure to privatize and monetize every aspect of the Internet, and bring it under corporate control.

Merlin Donald: Professor Emeritus, Queen’s University; Fellow, World Academy of Art & Science.
* Based on a keynote lecture to the Wallenberg Foundation Symposium on Technologies for Learning in Helsinki, Finland in August 2013
1 Merlin Donald, “The Definition of Human Nature, in the Context of Modern Neurobiology,” In D. A. Rees and S. P. R. Rose, eds, The new brain sciences: Perils and Prospects (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 34-58; Merlin Donald, “A View from Cognitive Science,” In D. Genten, V. Gerhardt, J.-C. Heilinger and J. Nida-Rumalin, eds, What is a human being? (Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008), 45-49; Merlin Donald, Cognitive Evolution and the Definition of Human Nature: Philosophy of Science Monographs (Morris Foundation, Little Rock, Arkansas, 2000), 31.

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