An Open Letter to Nonmillennials

This is not an excuse, but an explanation of how our tech has shaped us

Photo: Bronek Kaminski/Getty Images

Dear Traditionalist, Baby Boomer, or Gen Xer,

Millennials have been criticized for too long for supposedly being more entitled, impatient, and narcissistic than previous generations. We have endured taunts labeling us as sensitive, sheltered, and snowflakey. But avocado toast and acai bowls will not be the legacy of this generation. What follows is a description of the world we grew up in and an explanation for our tendencies — an exposition of our very subjective realities.

We grew up with the internet, smartphones, networked devices, and a Wi-Fi connection — indeed, we developed with the information age. People older than millennials might classify technology as tools used for business, enterprise, utility, or even convenience, efficiency, and work. But for us millennials, technology, as it is today, is an axiomatic truth. Just as functioning drainage systems may have been unquestionable givens to those born into such a time, so too is the notion of devices and screens to our generation. No doubt an impressive piece of engineering technology — but also one that is integral to our lives and integrated into our daily functioning.

We did not enjoy the privilege of growing up within a micro-context, one that required physical presence in an environment to undergo experiences and shape our minds.

We do not know the simplicity and certainty of a physical identity alone determining our existence. Today, yesterday, and for a few years now, in fact, we have been living in a macro-context: a vastly, densely interconnected global society, enabled by technology. The environment a person interacts with is no longer limited to the physical world within which they are embodied — technology has unleashed onto us this new, digital one. And while it is easy for the generations shaped by the Old World to sing praises about the enabler that is technology, it is us, the millennials, who are the guinea pigs of the New World, whose cognitive and physical systems are being shaped, poked, and prodded by the untested, foreign, omnipotent digital paradigm within which we’ve been raised.

Avocado toast and acai bowls will not be the legacy of this generation.

The cognitive load phenomenon

The digital paradigm refers to a phygital existence: a combination of the virtual and the real, physical and digital experiences determining our subjective reality. If, in the past, evolution had designed the cognitive systems of humans to meet the demands of the environment given our physical existence, we can say that this new digital paradigm of existence adds a “cognitive weight,” X, to our cognitive systems, since we now live in the physical and the digital paradigm. This is to suggest that some proportion of mental energy of a digitally-embedded human is exerted on digital existence and the maintenance of a digital identity — a cognitive load that did not previously exist.

We can also explore the functional role of the digital paradigm — it serves as an information-acquisition tool, allowing the digitally-embedded human to access larger volumes of information at a faster rate, and be cognitively shaped by contexts other than their immediate physical presence allows. We can argue that this, too, adds a cognitive weight, Y, since we are effectively bombarded with more information than previous generations have ever had access to.

What are the enablers that allowed the digital paradigm to form, exist, engulf, and alter humanity? The first is the lack of sufficient information about the pervasiveness of technology by the general public. Older generations simply did not acknowledge the existence of the digital as a paradigm; rather, they treated it as a tool. While we were sometimes subject to well-intentioned cautions about the perils of rotting one’s brain on a device, our parents, let alone our generation, barely grasped the extent to which technology governed our social interactions, communications and relationships, and would continue to do so increasingly.

The second is the sparse legislation and regulation surrounding technological innovation. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, tech companies were encouraged to “move fast and break things,” with little regard for the psychological factors that could result from disrupting time-tested social and cultural systems. No evidence or research was required detailing the social benefits of launching a product or service prior to going to market. Focusing on growth metrics and product quality was in fashion, so that’s what innovators did.

As a result, humanity was largely unprepared for a complete restructuring of social, cultural, and cognitive systems. Immersion into the digital paradigm was complete, sudden and total, its behavioral and cognitive impacts significant, inexorable and inevitable.

The implications of cognitive overload

Cognitive overload in the digital paradigm is reshaping human cognition at an unprecedented rate. The “Google effect” refers to the idea that the presence of search engines has reduced the amount of information humans remember. We have begun treating the internet as an extension of our memory, using it as a storage for facts and knowledge that we might otherwise remember. While we store less information in our brains, this change has been accompanied by a boost in our ability to remember where information can be found. Newer generations are criticized for their poor memory, but our cognitive systems have optimized themselves to operate in an environment of information abundance. Because we have instant access to information, we don’t need to remember a fact — we just need to know where to find it.

This changing cognitive prioritization, a result of neural rewiring, could be an indication of another cognitive revolution. The last time it happened was when humans developed imagination and abstract hypothetical thinking, which took 40,000 years. This time, it has taken 30. It is plausible, then, that this rapid and accelerated cognitive adaptation, as a result of an unprecedented cognitive load, would have developmental and behavioral consequences.

Exploiting our brains

We live in the information economy and attention is our currency. No matter what the product, business model, or value proposition, companies are betting on users giving attention to their product. Whether scrolling through a feed, using an app, or playing a free game, attention is the currency companies need to meet their metrics. “Creating the best possible user experience” is construed to mean “how can we best exploit behavioral dispositions and cognitive faculties to increase user engagement?” Psychological warfare is the technique, and dopamine is the target.

Companies use dopamine-inducing stimulants to positively reinforce our behavior when we engage with their platform. We get rewards — likes, retweets, shares — when we engage successfully. We get punishments — losing a streak, or losing followers — when we reduce or stop engagement. Carefully designed, colorful screens and icons activate our brain’s reward system, providing dopamine kicks. User experience screens, designed to guide user-behavior towards desirable outcomes, subconsciously manipulate us to act in ways we may not have otherwise.

Humanity was largely unprepared for a complete restructuring of social, cultural, and cognitive systems.

Behavioral implications of cognitive overload

While dopamine kicks are pleasurable in the short-term, they have persistent long-term behavioral and physiological effects. Receiving an attention-grabbing notification, getting likes on a picture, or other dopamine-inducing stimulants work by increasing the body’s naturally occurring dopamine levels, creating a state of pleasure. Over time, the body is conditioned to expect higher dopamine levels to continue with its normal functioning, making dopamine stimulants addictive.

Gradually, through positive social reinforcement, we were conditioned into creating an environment that maximizes the probability of dopamine kicks — that is, an environment where we could engage with technology conveniently and immediately, anytime, anywhere. And this continuous, daily interaction with dopamine has been raising our baseline state — the rigorous, consistent use of devices means we have built up dopamine tolerance. We are chemically dependent on our devices.

Over the years, as dopamine tolerance built up, barriers to technology reduced. The global explosion of the smartphone made services increasingly accessible, competitive markets made tech affordable, and governments prioritized connectivity in rural regions. Apps became easier to use, broadened in functionality, interfaces improved, and an increasing amount of services moved from the physical to the digital world.

Accessibility and incentive led to our increasing time spent on platforms: We scroll mindlessly, remain glued to the screen, long after free will has surrendered. You may have figured out by now that this is a chemically-motivated, cyclical incentive structure: Users demand quicker, easier ways to get dopamine hits, and companies provide the ability to do that. They say they make the world a better place, under the guise of innovation, driven by the need to be first-to-market, and driving dopamine hits.

The cycle is running in an infinite loop, and each iteration is shortening attention spans, breeding impatience, raising expectations, and establishing entitlements for better, faster, easy-to-use tech. With decades of scientific literature from the old pre-digital world, scientists are struggling to discern, understand, and classify the factors contributing to mental health diseases in this digital paradigm.

The number of ADHD cases in recent years has skyrocketed, teenage depression is at an all-time high, and unexplained anxiety has engulfed a generation. The world is only just coming to terms with the digital paradigm; the intricacies of our subjective phygital realities cannot be explained with the science of yesterday. Physical health requires a biological diagnosis; mental health demands a cognitive one. And if cognitive systems continue to be fundamentally attacked, exploited, and capitalized upon, mental health diseases will continue to plague generations to come. Behavioral therapy and prescription drugs are treatment, but only the redesign of incentive structures can institutionally reduce psychological warfare, preventing mental health issues from the outset.

This is not to suggest that technology is the sole cause of mental health issues, nor that simply redesigning incentive structures will absolve humanity of all cognitive ailments. Rather, it is to posit that the observed increase in reported mental health cases each year could be reduced significantly if the value proposition of tech companies was not to leverage and exploit cognitive systems in exchange for higher profit margins.

The consequences of such incentive structures are not limited to the cognitive; the accompanying behavioral manifestations are ubiquitous. In addition to designing for the human population as a whole, the last decade has seen an increase in emphasis on design for the individual user, engineering a customized, personalized experience, tailored to the needs and preferences of the individual. There is a huge emphasis on human-centered design, customized interfaces, “prioritized” news feeds, and curated content. Our own preferences, inclinations, and desires form the center of the digital universe, enforcing an ideal in the subconscious mind that life in the physical world works the same way. Younger generations, when exhibiting selfish, egoistic behavior, often have to be reminded that the universe does not revolve around them, but can they really expect them to know better if they’ve been conditioned by the digital paradigm to believe the exact opposite?

This is not intended to provide an excuse for obnoxious, unacceptable, or simply disrespectful behavior. It is not to condone distractedness, impatience, or other behavioral manifestations of cognitive conditions either. It is not to attribute blame to any particular group, nor is it to underemphasize the role of the individual in cultivating their own phygital experience. It is simply to highlight the role of The System in this process — one that is often underestimated.

Sincerely,

Those Damn Millennials

Sources:

  • Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Random House, 2014.
  • Sparrow, Betsy, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner. “Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips.” science 333.6043 (2011): 776–778.
  • Hirschman, David. “Your Brain on Drugs: Dopamine and Addiction.” Big Think, Big Think, 6 Oct. 2018, bigthink.com/going-mental/your-brain-on-drugs-dopamine-and-addiction.

provide the subjective experience of a young millennial with a passion for epistemology and futurism. Twitter: @avaa411

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