Tech: fight or flight

The autonomic nervous system—itself a division of our greater nervous system—unconsciously regulates bodily functions. It controls breathing, heart rate, digestion and physical and sexual arousal, amongst other things. How, exactly? It runs two systems in parallel: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The easiest way to understand the distinction between the two is as follows.

– The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response.
– The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the physiological mechanisms of “rest and digest”, or “feed and breed”.

I’m recounting this because it relates to some of the common complaints raised about the presence of tech in our lives, and the influence of tech on our minds and bodies. 

For example, one of the most typical warnings I see regarding social media revolves around behavioural feedback loops and dopamine desensitisation. The idea is that refreshing the feed or getting a like triggers a positive neurological event that we then become dependent upon. This isn’t hocus pocus. Tech, undeniably, affects both psychology and physiology. But the current slate of soft- and hardware does this in what we perceive to be a negative way only because it is unusually biased—it’s also why I think we don’t play so well with it, and why so many experience loss of function because of prolonged technological exposure. Consider the explanation of the two parts of the autonomic nervous system again. Which does the current wave of hard- and software most emphasis? The sympathetic nervous system; the system responsible for the fight-or-flight response.

Human augmentation is often embedded as part of science fiction stories. Microchips in the brain. Sensors that enhance our ability to see, feel and detect. Devices that increase our longevity. As such, it’s positioned as something that will happen in the future. It’s deception. Don’t buy it. Human augmentation is already occurring, right now, all around us. Every individual hunching over their smartphone, every person craning their neck to look at their laptop is an augmented human: the tech we’re using is eliciting a direct response from our nervous system and artificially heightening arousal. For now, anyway. 

And until innovators and entrepreneurs come to terms with technology’s ability to plug into our nervous system, we’ll continue in this cycle of adoption and rebellion, of consumption and criticism. Until we rebuild our assumptions and recognise the fact that technology emphasises the sympathetic nervous system at the expense of the parasympathetic, we’ll be stuck in our own vicious loop.