Ask The Experts


Press The Doorbell

By Mark Stephens and Jo Massie




Are you a digital native?

Want to know? Then press this doorbell.









What did you use, your thumb or your index finger?

Body Morphing

Apparently the answer reveals how much you have been affected by your technology use over the past decade.

I wrote this article after reading a piece in Stylist Magazine.

The article focused on the results of a new study that has found that an entire generation (the majority of under 25s) uses their thumbs for pressing things instead of the traditionally used index finger.

They have put this down to the increased use of technology devices that encourage the use of the thumb to control key functions of the device.

The most obvious example of this is sending an SMS or a txt, an activity which has become as natural to the under 25 generation as making a phone call.

The phrase attributed to this change in human behavior is called Body Morphing. In fact the changes to behavior in Japanese culture is so pronounced that they now refer to the under 25's as The Thumb Generation. Thumbs up

"Thumbs matter," says Dr. Sadie Plant, founder of Warwick University's Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Thumbs are one of the things which define us as human.

"Discovering that the younger generation has taken to using thumbs in a completely different way and are instinctively using them where the rest of us use our index fingers is particularly interesting," says Plant.

Anthropologist, Erin Marie Williams from George Washington University argues that "everything that made us human was arguably given this big push by using stone tools."

Our stone tools have now become our BlackBerrys which require improved dexterity in previously underused digits; this could eventually change the way we use our hands. But is this really the way that technology is developing? Or is this just a temporary transition which relates to the technology currently available?

As technology develops is it likely to remain demanding on the thumbs or is it not going to require the use of our hands at all? Will the next generation revert back to the more traditional index finger because in order to use their favorite gadgets they need only activate them with their mind?

Anyone who spends working hours at a desk also sees the impact of digital technology on levels of physical activity.

Patrick Tucker, director of communications for the World Future Society and senior editor of The Futurist Magazine, believes new technologies could lead to generations of people who are much less physically able.

"We are the first humans to outsource jobs to technology, to automate that which is labour intensive or mentally tedious. In the 21st Century, this may result in people that are by and large less capable than we are today."

Mind Games

There are not just the physical implications that technology has, but those that we cannot see or measure to the same extent - inside our brains.

Nicholas Carr, a technology writer, sparked controversy with his latest book by claiming that the worldwide web is not just shaping our lives but physically altering our minds.

"Over the past few years, I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry [...] My mind isn't going - so far as I can tell - but its changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think," Carr writes.

The argument is that it is technology which is helping attention span shrink to zero. There is of course the old debate that too much TV shortens attention span, especially in children, but this is a further accusation that the internet is helping to shortening it further.

With sites like Twitter and the concept of micro-blogging becoming more and more popular we can even get the latest news in a short sentence.

It is estimated that the average UK adult spends 45% of their waking hours either on the web or watching television, which feels a surprising percentage.

This time is impacting both our comprehension and our concentration span because "navigating the internet involves a lot of mental calisthenics - deciding whether to click from one page to another, adjusting to different formats - that are extraneous to the process of reading the web. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension," according to Carr.

This is not a unanimous opinion though, Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide argues that technology is actually good for our minds. "A 2009 review published on the cognitive effects of video games, found that gaming led to improvements in various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention."

Personally, I am inclined to argue that gaming is helping to increase our attention spans, especially in children.

The range and popularity of games for handheld games consoles, such as Nintendo's DS range, often not only stimulate your brain but require you to concentrate for extended periods of time.

With the gaming on Smartphones and on tablet computers becoming evermore popular then if Lehrer's comments are sustained, it can only be that we see improvement in our cognitive tasks.

Although there is a far greater amount of information available to us at a click of a button that is not to say that we all employ it in order to feed out brains.

The Daily Telegraph recently reported that it can be easy to forget things which you have read on screen including on electronic book readers.

For a long time it had been assumed that displaying information more clearly and legibly would help readers to take information in, but it could be that making something easy to read will make the brain lazy.

It is argued that e-readers and computers prevent us from absorbing the information because their crisp screens and clear fonts tell our subconscious that the words they contain are unimportant. Lehrer found that he was less likely to recall information which he had read on his e-reader.

Modern Society

Away from our brains, technology has also affected the way we interact with people; it makes it easier to stay in touch, or should I say 'connected', with those we would normally loose contact with.

Social psychologists in the Eighties estimated that the average British person had between six and 10 close friends. In 2011, the average Facebook user has 130 'friends'; technology has activated the 'nosy neighbour' personality in us all.

Psychologist, Alan Redman, splits today's society into three different generations. "The under 25s are digital natives, humans completely fluent in digital technology, who don't know life before the digital age. The middle group - over-25s who use the internet on a regular basis - are digital immigrants, who grew up fairly fluent in new technologies. The third, older generation are digital aliens - anyone who has helped their parents figure out Facebook will know what we mean."

Differences between these three groups are clear. "Digital natives have profoundly different ways of behaving. They tend to seek out multiple forms of information at the same time, texting, watching TV and surfing the net, all simultaneously," says Redman. "They've got a very different idea about privacy because they were born into a culture of public exposure."

This is not necessarily a negative factor considering the notorious British nature of privacy.

However, technology has made younger people less inclined to have conversations with each other; they would often rather send a txt than make a phone call as it is felt this is a more effective and efficient manner of communication.

I have also witnessed a group of fourteen year old girls talking to each other through BlackBerry messenger when they were sitting next to each other. Perhaps soon, if this is to continue, our thumbs will replace the function of our tongues and vocal chords.

A tool for protest?

A final thing which technology is changing is the nature of protest and opinion giving.

Twitter was felt to be so important to the Iranian uprising in 2009 that the US State Department organised for the time of a planned upgrade to be changed so that the server wouldn't be offline at a pinnacle time in the Iranian day.

More recently in Egypt, the Egyptian Government shut down their Internet and SMS services, creating an Internet blackout in a (failed) attempt to slow down their protests.

However, these social changes aren't altogether positive says Redman. "Protest is now easier [but] at the same time, there's not a particular depth of felling. Yes, opinions are spread wide, but they're spread thinly."

There's also the argument that us venting about what we think is wrong with society isn't actually positive for it. "We're so ready to be outraged. We're ready to jump on the bandwagon, even if we have no direct experience of what we're expressing outrage about," says Redman. "Previously, for a mob to riot, they needed to physically gather together and to have had first-hand experience of the events that enraged everyone. That's not true anymore. People will take direct action online, because everyone else is doing so."

People can become armchair protesters where they feel that they are doing their part for the cause without even leaving the comfort of their own home.

As far as the future is concerned, this all may be irrelevant, as technology evolves so will we to adapt to it. At least our thumbs will get a well earned rest.

How do you think technology has affected your life?

Relevant Links
Warwick University
George Washington University
The Futurist