In the last couple of decades, the way we communicate with others and gather and share information has drastically changed in a way that no one in all probability would have expected. I can actually remember when I used to handwrite letters to my grandmother, thinking about my spelling, taking extra care that the stamps were stuck on securely before I posted them and then eagerly anticipate replies through the letterbox a few weeks later. I remember when I used to take my dad’s encyclopaedias and dictionaries off the shelf that weighed more than me when I had homework to do. I remember when a friend would come over to our house I would excitedly show them our latest holiday photos in our album – a physical album where we still had the negatives.
Now I can call my grandmother whenever I want over Viber who lives on the other side of the world. In fact, I can communicate with as many different people as I want regardless of location, time or how I choose to communicate i.e. photos/videos/messages. And for sure I do exactly that, so much so, that sometimes it becomes almost a mission to keep up with several different conversations all happening at once. I’ve developed a habit whereby I check social media feeds as I open my eyes in the morning, noticing news headlines and photos of friends’ breakfasts in a blur.
I can use Wikipedia/Google/journal databases and an array of other resources simultaneously to complete a dissertation in half the time I would have been able to before. With 50 tabs open on my web browser I can sift through endless heaps of information. I can open up a further tab and watch a tutorial on YouTube to help me with my work and perhaps have the video running in the background whilst I start up a chat on Skype with my friend who is helping for this dissertation.
People can see my holiday snaps one minute after me having taken the photo. I can share my holiday experiences live with not only people I know but the entire 6 billion strong world population. I can show them exactly where I am and share the geographical coordinates of my location. Talking location, I can use my phone to drive to the neighbouring city at the same time as sharing my photos of the journey along the way.
Is this not amazing? And in no way am I being sarcastic. I know I would not give up these 21st century benefits.
However, there is a real issue that is surfacing from our constant use of and reliance on the Internet. I can only agree with the statement that ‘the Internet is making us dumb’. Most of us at least. We spend so much time scrolling through newsfeeds and the like that our brains are becoming conditioned to scanning information. This is slowly teasing out our ability to focus on any one thing at a time. We almost have a compulsion to be doing as many things are we can simultaneously and it divides up and fragments our attention and memory. We feel restless when we are not spending time liking photos or watching YouTube videos – not for any particular reason or purpose, but just to kill time as we wait for a train on a platform for example. Our minds are constantly wandering, constantly distracted by the vast amount of meaningless information being bombarded in our faces on the internet. Sometimes we set out to do something with a purpose but the social media website will intelligently assess you and suggest a video of interest for you to watch or provide you with a link to buy something you were looking at just the other day.
To scan information is a useful quality to have at times but we are now acquiring it at too great an extent in expense of all other qualities such as problem solving, critical and deep thinking and other higher-order processes such as reflection and understanding concepts. By scanning and jumping between various forms of media we also alter the thresholds of intellectual stimulation within us, and we become unable to stop seeking out further pieces of mindless information to continue to stimulate ourselves. The same applies for distraction itself. To have purposeful breaks amidst deep thinking and problem-solving is a healthy habit, which if done correctly usually allows the individual to return to a problem with a clearer mind. However, being constantly distracted defeats the purpose and we no longer create any productive or useful output – essentially, we are doing absolutely nothing but are denying it to ourselves. And all of this becomes evident when we lose or phone or lose WiFi signal – suddenly the emptiness within us becomes manifest as the superficial stimuli we use to constantly keep our minds alive disappear for that short period of time.
Allah (swt) mentions a countless number of times in the Qur’an of the importance of thinking and continuously reminds us of ways to preserve this gift of human intellect.
‘Do they not think deeply about themselves…?’ Qur’an 30:8
‘…So relate the stories, perhaps they may reflect…’ Qur’an 7:176
The constant artificial stimulation of our minds can disrupt out perspectives and make us forget our true nature where we were designed to think deeply. We are encouraged to contemplate, ponder and reason about historical events and ‘stories’ from the real lives of real people who went through struggles not so dissimilar to our own. And lo and behold, this is usually where we find our best answers to our daily struggles. The very nature of our worship is a testament to the high value of preserving our concentration and memory. We are told to learn the Qur’an itself, which Allah (swt) has made easy for us to remember. We pray together but in silence with a focused manner. We are instructed to instil Ihsan – excellence – in everything we do. In Islam, there is no doing anything half-heartedly – we are encouraged and instructed to do good and benefit mankind with excellence and finish what we start. No mind-wandering but full focus so that we may work towards and achieve goals.
It certainly is not to say that the Internet is inherently a bad thing. Or that, as some members of older generations will say, we were much better off without it. No. When I pointed out some of the amazing things that can be done, they really are genius. Each era has had its own revolution whether it was wheels, medicines, electricity or the phone with each bringing their own challenges. In reality I don’t think anyone would really go backwards to a time before if they were given the option to. Success lies in us not losing our purpose and not losing the value of our intellectual abilities. It lies in us being able to nurture them, as God has advised us to, with whatever resources we have available without losing ourselves in the tools.
‘Verily! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, and the ships which sail through the sea with that which is of use to mankind, and the water (rain) which Allâh sends down from the sky and makes the earth alive therewith after its death, and the moving (living) creatures of all kinds that He has scattered therein, and in the veering of winds and clouds which are held between the sky and the earth, are indeed Ayât (proofs, evidences, signs, etc.) for people of understanding.’ Qur’an 2:164
These are only some of the significant signs and creations of Allah (swt) that will take us back to Him if we paid more attention. Investing mindfully in our thoughts will eliminate the manufactured need for superficial stimulation. Prioritising the people and the signs that are physically right in front of us over screen-based media and multiple browser windows is what will stimulate real human connection – something that is much more sustaining and fulfilling, and the beginning of the end to our compulsive ‘gap-filling’ behaviour.