How the Web Became Our ‘External Brain,’ and What It Means for Our Kids7 August, 2014 / Articles
Recently, my two-year-old nephew Benjamin came across a copy of Vanity Fair abandoned on the floor. His eyes scanned the glossy cover, which shone less fiercely than the iPad he is used to but had a faint luster of its own. I watched his pudgy thumb and index finger pinch together and spread apart on Bradley Cooper’s smiling mug. At last, Benjamin looked over at me, flummoxed and frustrated, as though to say, “This thing’s broken.”
Search YouTube for “baby” and “iPad” and you’ll find clips featuring one-year-olds attempting to manipulate magazine pages and television screens as though they were touch-sensitive displays. These children are one step away from assuming that such technology is a natural, spontaneous part of the material world. They’ll grow up thinking about the internet with the same nonchalance that I hold toward my toaster and teakettle. I can resist all I like, but for Benjamin’s generation resistance is moot. The revolution is already complete.
Technology Is Evolving Just Like Our DNA Does
With its theory of evolution, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species may have outlined, back in 1859, an idea that explains our children’s relationship with iPhones and Facebook. We are now witness to a new kind of evolution, one played out by our technologies.
The “meme,” a term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976, is an extension of Darwin’s Big Idea past the boundaries of genetics. A meme, put simply, is a cultural product that is copied. We humans are enamored of imitation and so become the ultimate “meme machines.” Memes—pieces of culture—copy themselves through history and enjoy a kind of evolution of their own, and they do so riding on the backs of successful genes: ours.
According to the memeticist Susan Blackmore, just as Darwinism submits that genes good at replicating will naturally become the most prevalent, technologies with a knack for replication rise to dominance. These “temes,” as she’s called these new replicators, could be copied, varied, and selected as digital information—thus establishing a new evolutionary process (and one far speedier than our genetic model). Blackmore’s work offers a fascinating explanation for why each generation seems less capable of managing solitude, and less likely to opt for technological disengagement.