technology and human nature.

A wider context. To gain perspective it is interesting to take a step back from computation and to appreciate how and why the world is changing through the smartphone and social networks. These are some of the most disruptive digital technologies that the world has ever seen, now becoming intertwined with “being human”. The smartphone has become a necessity of modern life in the developed world; mobile, ever present and providing a convenient basis for observation and  interaction with others, with the paradox that it can also remove us from face to face interactions.

It’s philosophical. The relationship we have with smartphones is fascinating –  philosophically this is a form of mind extension, intertwined with our cognition. It’s called active externalism – the human disposition to use any object available to help us to think. Through this we can explore human nature – using digital clues about what we are doing, thinking, how we are feeling or presenting ourselves. This has allowed the smartphone to become a proxy for the user, permitting insights into individual differences on the one hand and letting us to see how society currently functions and naturally structures on the other.

brainA strong alignment with groups. Responsible for the success of the smartphone is its relevance to the human social brain. This is the neocortex region that provides the ability to manage complex relationships within large social groups, and is disproportionately large in humans compared to other species. This is deep rooted in ancient history, evolving through humans finding survival advantage from cooperating in groups to overcome more powerful predators. A lot of human time involves thinking and reasoning about our social groups – a particularly time consuming function that constrains the size of our own social group are the bonding processes to establish and  maintain relationships. The smartphone and social networks provide realtime channels for observation and interaction without being in the same place. This offers potential efficiencies to those seeking to build relationships. But we are not wholly dependent on a digital channel  – due to our biology we still need to meet…

We instinctively gossip and self-compare. Continued evolution through living in large groups has led to sophisticated social capabilities, sparking the evolution of language some 250,000 years ago. We navigate and learn about our social world through gossip and self-comparison, with 60-70% of interactions in human conversations on social topics. This provides us with a basis to gauge and understand other people and also ourselves. Here the smartphone has a role to play. At any time of day we can explore our thoughts about friends. We can also take a degree of influence and proactivity in our self-presentation – selectively projecting cues across our social networks in real time – a checkin at Starbucks, a retweet, a “like” and so on. Through the smartphone our social projections are received by “group” members with immediacy and then straight into the social brain.
9524781477_513e60208a_bI think …. therefore I am. 
Perhaps the most advanced social function that humans have is the unnerving ability to some how “know” what other people might be thinking. Theory of mind is the concept through which we accurately ascribe a belief about other people’s beliefs and mental states. We increase complexity by nesting, which is expressed by order of intentionality – I believe that she believes that I believe that he is…..  and so on. Online social networks expose a group member’s wider interactions, that can be challenging to establish by other means – for example the places people go, their political affiliation, the social content that they prefer and who they associate with online. This means we have a new basis to support intentionality, alongside the pictures we may traditionally build from direct observation and gossip.

High usage has its implications. The immediacy, volume and accessibility of social media through smartphones can encourage overuse. The compulsion is seemingly reinforced by the potential rewards – stimulation, feedback or recognition from peers. Technological design also fuels this cycle – smartphone notifications draw our attention and the fear of missing something by being offline can add to anxiety. Consequently well-being and productivity can suffer. We remain at the early stages of understanding addiction and overuse, and how to manage this. Technological design has an important role to play – currently technological practices largely leave the human to self-govern their interactions.


Acknowledgements: photography, in order, courtesy of: Matthew G,  Richard FosterClemens Löcker and dominique cappronnier under CC.