Digital toxicity

There’s a tendency to downplay the negative aspects of the digital transition that’s happening at pace. Perhaps it’s the acceptance of the inevitability of change and only hushed voices of objection.

A couple of simple changes struck me this week. One was my bank automatically moving me to an on-line statement and the other was a news story about local authorities removing pay machines from car parks on the assumption everyone has a mobile phone.

With these changes there’s a high likelihood that difficulties are going to be caused for a few people. Clearly, the calculation of the banks and local authorities is that the majority rules. Exclusion isn’t their greatest concern but saving money is high on their list of priorities.

The above aside, my intention was to write about more general toxic impacts of the fast-moving digital transition. Now, please don’t get me wrong. In most situations such a transition has widespread benefits. What’s of concern is the few mitigations for any downsides.

Let’s list a few negatives that may need more attention.

Addiction. With social media this is unquestionable[1]. Afterall digital algorithms are developed to get people engaged and keep them engaged for as long as possible. It’s the business model that brings in advertising revenues. There’s FOMO too. That’s a fear of missing out on something new or novel that others might see but you might miss out on.

Attention. Rapidly stroking a touch screen to move from image to image, or video to video encourages less attention to be given to any one piece of information. What research there is shows a general decline in the attention span[2] as a characteristic of being subject to increasing amounts of information, easily made available.

Adoration. Given that so many digital functions are provided with astonishing accuracy, availability, and speed there’s a natural inclination to trust their output. When that trust is justifiable for a high percentage of the time, the few times information is in error can easily be ignored or missed. This can lead to people defending or supporting information that is wrong[3] or misleading.

It’s reasonable to say there are downsides with any use of technology. That said, it’s as well to try to mitigate those that are known about and understood. The big problem is the cumulative effect of the downsides. This can increase fragility and vulnerability of the systems that we all depend upon.

If digital algorithms were medicines or drugs, there would be a whole array of tests conducted before their public release. Some would be strongly regulated. I’m not saying that’s the way to go but it’s a sobering thought.





There’s a mismatch. It really is the case that there are more demands for attention than any normal person can address. Certainly, social media has a habit of burning up time. TV channel numbers expand like prolific rabbits but ironically there’s nothing worth watching or so it’s said. Daily newspapers are in decline, but supermarket shelves remain covered with expensive colourful magazines packed full of advertising. So many demands for our attention but the 24-hour day is much the same as it was in stone age times.

I did start a “to do list” in the assumption that it would help. Get me organised. Problem is that such lists fill up quickly and each task linger like a sword of Damocles[1]. Due dates slip into the past. It’s not a good way to reduce a dynamic stack of e-mails or clear a cluttered diary. Such lists are more a source admin than they are a source of free time.

One descriptive word that’s more than familiar to an engineer is that of “Bandwidth.” In this case lack of it. In the technical world it’s a range of frequencies within a set band. That notion of a limitation exists because a band is not boundless.

For my e-mail list. The contemporary form of an in-tray full to the brim with paper. This means that time is not expandable in such a way as to address everything that demands attention. Even though, it’s true that a great deal of time-wasting junk is quickly consigned to the waste bin.

As a species we have not evolved to cope with the ever changing digital world. The speed with which information can move is unrelenting. Harsh weather, day, night, the global expanse, nothing slows it down. Anyone with an internet connection is quickly hooked. Disconnection become imposible.

The difficulty is the mix. Irrelevant drivel takes the same path as communications of great value. The job of sorting this out, to make stuff usable, takes time that squeezes out new contracts or new projects. Finding energy and mental capacity to deal with digital clutter drains the batteries.

The new art is knowing what bandwidth, to manage this deluge, you can muster and for how long. Then being disciplined enough to use the delete button more often. To be less bound by a drive to answer every question. To be less impacted by views and opinions that pass by like rocket ships.

[1] The expression comes from the Roman politician, orator, and philosopher Cicero (106-43 BC). And I thought it was Biblical.