Social Media and the mind: skimming the waters of intellectual knowledge

By: Ryan Mohr

As social theorist Marshall McLuhan stated, the medium is the message. How we communicate largely defines what we communicate. McLuhan argued that the creation of the printing press led to the creation of the modern human mind, and that it was no accident it coincided with the Renaissance, the rise of rationalism and the scientific method.  He believed this new consciousness was shaped by the non-visual and non-auditory medium of print.

Fast-forward a few hundred years to the creation of social media like Facebook, Twitter, MyLife, IMing, mobile apps, the mysterious Google +, etc.  What does this all mean for the human consciousness?

Well, most neural scientists will say it does more good than harm; the Internet and related technologies are actually health food for the brain.  They point out the abundance of scientific evidence that suggest our brains are now better at information processing and multi-tasking.  Today’s students are apparently capable of texting on their cell phones while listening and evaluating what their professors say as they sit in class.  Yes, today’s youth, according to these brain experts, have Darwinian superpowers.

I’ll be the first to admit that ever-increasing technology is certainly helpful.  Before Google, you had to lug out an old encyclopedia and scan the pages if you wanted to know more about something.  Now you can find what you need in 0.3 seconds.

According to a 2011 report done by the analytics firm Flurry, the average person spends 81 minutes per day using mobile apps and 74 minutes per day browsing the web on both cell-phones and desktops.  That’s a total of over 2.5 hours of usage per day.  And this doesn’t include TV, which accounts for almost another three hours a day.  The era that once believed TV was the new, evil mind-killer is long gone.  Seriously, who has time to sit down to read and engage in a book?

While these new social media sites are still typographically dependent, they are just simple printed notes.  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, making his “social inbox” announcement this past year, introduced seven principles that should form the basis for communication 2.0.  He said messages need to be seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short.  That sounds fine and dandy, except for the fact that if all communication is headed toward this new social medium, we might be in serious neural trouble.

The dilemma is not that technology hard-wires our brains for the worse, but that it creates too many pleasurable distractions for our brains.  As humans, we instinctively seek out the avenues which generate the quickest accessible pleasures, bypassing any mental gratifications that require long-houred, complex thought, such as large novels, writing long papers and essays, or solving intricate scientific experiments.

The key I suppose is good old-fashioned Aristotelian moderation — monitoring what we do and how often we do it.