Historians of the future may note that around the time of the Facebook IPO a critical juncture was reached in the relationship between technology and the human race. No longer were the wired-up people on planet Earth controlling the devices that ingenious, wizardlike engineers invented to serve and connect them. Instead, the ultrasmart new devices were controlling and enslaving them—us—and doing so at frightening, ever-accelerating speed.
You know it’s true anecdotally from the signs all around us—the glazed longing that creeps into eyes as a phone vibrates from a pocket or bag, the instantly lowered heads in an elevator as soon as the doors close and messages are scanned, the teenager asleep with a glowing phone on the pillow, the frantic effort on the plane to maintain surreptitious connection for the last few minutes after the voice has told us to turn off all handheld devices. It’s like having an ever-present, adulterous, inexhaustibly demanding affair, a secret counterexistence that no matter how fast we run always outpaces reality. “We may appear to be choosing to use this technology,” Tony Dokoupil writes on page 28, “but in fact we are being dragged to it by the potential of short-term rewards. Every ping could be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the bell.”
In his international survey for Newsweek of a variety of academic research in neuroscience, psychiatry, and psychology, Dokoupil identifies disquieting global trends in mental health associated with Internet penetration. In the U.S. in the past decade, there has been a 66 percent rise in ADHD diagnoses. Arguments may be made about cause and effect, but there’s now no doubt that the brain is changing. A Chinese study of Internet addicts has mapped changes in the areas charged with attention, control, and executive function signified by “abnormal white matter”—essentially extra nerve cells built for speed. The changes turn out to be similar to those observed in the brains of junkies and alcoholics. And just as with other forms of addiction, experts say the crack high of continuous connection is associated with similar jagged, inevitable comedowns, depressive stretches, shattered concentration, a pervasive, indeterminate malaise. In South Korea, the government has deemed the mobile and videogame mania so unhealthy for young people, it’s funding treatments centers and coordinating a late-night shutdown. Next year for the first time, albeit in an appendix tagged for “further study,” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders will include Internet Addiction Disorder. Do your memory cells retain the name of the creator of the notorious “Kony 2012” video and what happened to him? When the viral reaction to his post became overwhelming, Jason Russell raced out of his house in San Diego stark naked, ranting and raving until he could be hospitalized and unplugged. He qualified for a diagnosis of “reactive psychosis,” for victims whose brains literally cannot take it anymore.
Jason Russell had to find his own way to escape from the electronic bubble he had created. But sometimes an altered reality is not the fault of the Internet. Most of us have exulted at the prospect of democracy in the Middle East (rather than the Web dystopia described by Dokoupil). We avidly follow the latest tweets from the Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. Yet as blood runs through the streets, it’s possible for the affluent to construct a seductive alternate world. Assad’s Alawite, Christian, and secular supporters are numerous and entrenched. The intrepid Janine di Giovanni writes for Newsweek about the chic elite of Damascus, who still waft among champagne receptions, concerts, and pool-side parties. She offers a riveting portrait of a cracking social strata dancing on the lip of the volcano, its orchestra at the opera house playing on, like Russian musicians during the German siege of Leningrad. She writes on page 34, “Syria, I realized, has become a schizophrenic place; a place where people’s realities no longer connect.”