I’ve seen the Future baby, and it’s… social media #AdlFoI

[Third of a series of blog posts about sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas on Saturday 22nd October]

Dr Fiona Kerr (of Adelaide University; all the best people went there) gave a barnstorming tour through the brain (her day job), and talked about the impacts on it of prolonged exposure to new technologies.  She made a compelling case that … sorry, just had to check an email message.  Where was I?  Oh, yes, she made a…   No, sorry, it’s gone.  Something about deep thinking needing to be done off-line, away from the dopamine-pings of… hang on, just a minute… something about abstraction.

She then moved on to talk about the fascinating physiological profiles of empathy (‘discernment mode’.  The problem with social media is that it doesn’t have the face-to-face empathic cues and clues, so although we are better ‘connected’, we are no less lonely.  She speculated on the possible link to increased depression [As I am sure Kerr is aware, new technologies always come with these fears – the introduction of the telephone, for instance, was predicted to kill  off people visiting one another].

Kerr then turned to Big Data, and recommend we read Hans Rosling, who looks at the patterns(and solutions) in solving world’s problems.  There was an intriguing reference to a search engine company having made a choice to present ‘easy’ results, that keep us surfing (and therefore our eyeballs sold to advertises) rather than digging deeper.

On the question of references to oneself, in face-to-face conversation, its roughly 30 per cent of sentences that include I/me statements but on social media it’s in the 80s%. #engineofnarcissism.  [but then, Christopher Lasch was banging on about narcissism in the 70s, and Philip Slater in the 60s). It’s always been getting worse, no?

Kerr also talked about cases of women with new born children on their phones while breast-feeding. She said that while skin-to-skin contact is really important, eye contact (‘direct gaze’) is also very very important indeed.  (She gave the example of infants’ cortisol levels going up and staying up during a ‘still face’ and no touch experiment , versus cortisol levels not spiking as high or staying elevated if  ‘still face’ was accompanied by continuous touch. Recent work is looking a ‘irritable cortisol receptors.

In response to an excellent question/observation about how in East Timor, very young children are given (small!) jobs to do and the elderly important jobs, Kerr spoke of the importance of will power (persistence) but also challenging children and expecting more of them.

I had a brief chat afterwards with Dr Kerr on Blade Runner (naturlich) and the rise of the machines (our extermination may be down to nothing more than an optimisation algorithm, rather than SkyNet becoming self-aware) and… ‘synthetic empathy


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