You and I haven’t been on the earth for long. That’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Humans have such a large impact on our earth that the concept that we weren’t even here seems unreal. 100,000 years ago, there were six species of humans. Today, there’s only one, that’s us, Homo sapiens. So why were the successful ones?
Evolution did a great job at getting humans where we are today. We successfully competed against and beat out numerous species, and we stand tall as the strongest species on the planet. And, I think, for that reason, we are obliged to thank evolution. Without it, we wouldn’t be here, today! However, what does evolution actually do? It increases our chances of passing on genes. That’s it. What’s the missing piece? How about human happiness?
In fact, evolution debatably screwed over our happiness during the Agricultural Revolution. During the Agriculture Revolution, humans were forced to engage in intense labor. Spending hours and hours harvesting crops under the hot sun wasn’t enjoyable. So, why did it happen? It increased our chances of passing on our genes. This shows the ‘fault’ of evolution: increasing our fecundity does not mean that we are happier. In fact, it makes us even worse off (emotionally, anyway).
Moreover, our development of technology has only bolstered our success. However, the rapid speed of technology growth is cause for worry. What if technology increased our evolutionary success but put our happiness in jeopardy? This is what I fear.
Before the 21st century, technology grew at a much slower pace. My chemistry teacher often uses the example that if someone fell asleep in 1000 AD and woke up one hundred years later, they wouldn’t be too impressed with what they saw in 1100 AD. But what about someone who fell asleep in 1900 AD? By 2000, the world was revolutionized. Cars had become ubiquitous, computers allowed one to connect with the entire world, one could fly wherever they wanted in hours, etc. In the past 100 years, technology has grown at a break-neck pace, maybe even exponentially. But what about evolution?
Evolution can’t compound its own pace as technology can. It is bound by the same laws that have governed it for the past billions of years: natural selection takes time to happen and natural selection requires deaths to happen. These principles shed light on two reasons why evolution lags behind — there’s not enough time and, with improved medicine and technology, small behavioral differences won’t lead to life and death.
But who cares that evolution can’t keep up with technology? You should. Because exponential growth in technology coupled with old genes means that you are running on an old operating system that will crash in this new world.
Before diving deeper, I want to explore what I mean by this operating system not working well. Evolution has done well with humans. A lot of our development comes after birth, meaning that we can adapt to big changes, like those in technology. However, a lot of the old programming in our brains isn’t so malleable. Additionally, a lot of that programming has a significant bearing on our happiness. So, just like during the Agricultural Revolution, our happiness is not calibrated for today’s reality. That’s the issue. Let’s explore why.
In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright makes the point that what may have been beneficial for us thousands of years ago may not be beneficial for us today. Take social anxiety, for example: we used to live in tribes in which we saw the same people over and over again. A bad interaction with just one person could have an incredible impact on our life. Therefore, we fear those bad interactions and we ruminate about them. What about today?
In an era of connection, we are meeting way more people than our ancestors did, which means that there a lot more opportunities to fail socially. Moreover, the interactions we have today with new people don’t hold as much weight as the interactions we had with our tribemates had. In fact, for a lot of the people we meet, we never see them again. So, we are placing significant importance on interactions that probably have little impact on our evolutionary success. And social anxiety runs rampant because of the sheer quantity of interactions we have.
Social media makes this even worse. It plays right into our primitive desires. We crave social approval. We need it as humans. So, it makes sense that we enjoy getting likes and comments — it makes us think we are special. However, the incongruence between our evolutionary instincts and social media introduces two problems: wasting your time pleasure-seeking and compulsive self-comparison.
Unpredictable, intermittent pleasure allows social media to take up so much of your time. A whistleblower from the tech industry, Tristan Harris, explains how tech companies captivate you for hours on end: “Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products because it’s good for business,” (Newport, 19). Every ding of a like or comment gives you pleasure — after all, it is social approval! And, you are hooked. Hungry for another notification, you keep returning to social media. Your brain has evolved to enjoy this type of pleasure: unpredictable social approval. But, is this much different than gambling?
When someone gambles, they are willing to trade some of their socially desirable power (money) to possibly get more socially desirable power. Winning money is unpredictable, and so you keep coming back, thinking that you will win next time. When someone goes on social media, they are willing to trade some of their time to possibly get social approval. Winning social approval is unpredictable, so you keep coming back, thinking that you will win next time.
The main difference here is what you put in: money for gambling and time for social media. But the goal? It’s the same: social approval and admiration. Again, however, the actual rewards of getting likes and comments have little impact on your life. Tech companies are playing into your evolutionary desires, taking away your time to give you the possibility of wracking up more likes.
The increased connection enabled by technology has certainly had its benefits. But, maybe it’s time to reflect on the question of whether everything technology has to offer is good. Are we giving up happiness to fulfill evolution’s goals? Is this just like the agricultural revolution? And, if it is, should we stop it?
Sources drawn on:
Sapiens by Yuval Harari
Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport