In the science and health world, there’s been a lot of attention placed on the role that evolution has on our expanding waistlines and drastically increasing rates of obesity. My dad is a diabetes researcher, and for years I’ve heard him rant about the mechanisms we evolved over millions years to survive droughts and famines (such as fat cells, which conserve our fat in case we need to survive off it later, and an affinity for sweetness and highly caloric foods) are now the very things that are killing us by making it impossible to resist overindulgence and even harder to lose weight in our convenience-oriented and sedentary society. As a species historically living in a world where calories and dense nutrition are hard to come by, we have no survival techniques that help resist this new American culture that has only recently introduced, leading to an obesity epidemic of unseen proportions.
I think this idea is a great one with an empirical biological basis in our bodies, but I also think it applies to our social brains as we enter an increasingly technology-saturated world. Part of what makes us distinctly human is our ability to attribute meaning to our lives through symbols and language as form all kinds of intimate relationships through social interaction. So the role that the pervasiveness of online social networking can be seen as a quantum leap into social saturation of our lives, one that we did not evolve for and puts us in foreign, precarious positions. What does it mean to publicize our lives to everyone we know on our newsfeeds? How does impersonal textual communication affect our relationships? Does removing the intention of sharing information to certain people through automated social media detract from the importance of our interaction? And how does outsourcing social connection to a computer screen influence our sense of agency in maintaining relationships and social interaction?
These questions can’t be conclusively answered at this point, as much of this automated sharing technology has only just recently been popularized. But the trend that Mark Zuckerberg is taking Facebook seems to be one of automatic publicizing of all online activity – you’ve seen it already with Spotify and Netflix integration – which drastically alters the nature of how we communicate. And you’ve probably already been annoyed by the inundation of information about your friend’s embarrassing music taste that you didn’t care to know about in the first place. Furthermore, as someone who probably enjoys sharing links online a little too much, I take issue with the idea that every article I read should automatically be posted on my page. I don’t want every article I see online to go straight to my friends, as I take pains to sift through the loads of junk to sort out the most intelligent pieces to share. Sharing information intentionally, which is how it’s always been up until this point, has led to an outpouring of information easily spread to the masses – some vital to our social discourse, such as the incredible image of the police pepper spraying peaceful protestors during Occupy at UC Davis, and some admittedly useless, such as “Friday” by Rebecca Black or whatever meme that will die once its 15 minutes (or is it 5?) are up. Regardless, if the intentionality of online sharing is removed, the useless junk will outpace the important stuff as our ability to shape and influence what information is spread is limited.
Internet technology is changing our lives in ways we can barely keep track of. For example, long distance relationships are infinitely easier to maintain now that Skype is free and forges a remnant of face-to-face interaction, grainy and questionably satisfying as it may be. Our younger generations are increasingly global and can stay in touch with our international friends through Facebook and email, which is fantastic for those relationships that would otherwise dissolve due to geographical distance. But as we consider trends in social media, we must remember that our intention is a huge contributor to the gravity and beneficial significance of our interaction with the world. Though we use them every day, human beings are not machines, nor were we meant to be. We evolved to derive and project meaning onto our existence, whether it be our personal narratives or the relationships we keep with others. Removing meaning and intention from how we communicate is drastically un-human, and this is something we should be conscious of as we continue moving towards the future.
Moral of the story: to be healthy and happy, we humans must pay respects to the millions of years of evolving that shaped our bodies and brains into the wonderful systems that they are. Technological innovations are exciting, but can only truly contribute to our wellbeing when they take into consideration our millions of years of history.