A Letter to Non-Millennials
Explores possible cognitive and socio-economic causes for characteristic millennial traits
Dear Traditionalist, Baby Boomer, or GenXer,
Millennials have been criticized too long about how we are more entitled, impatient and narcissistic than previous generations. We have endured well-meaning taunts labelling us sensitive, sheltered and snowflakey. But avocado toasts and açai bowls will not be the legacy of this generation.
What follows is a description of the world we grew up in and an explanation for our tendencies: an exposition of our very subjective realities.
We grew up with the internet, the smartphone, networked devices, and a Wifi connection — indeed, we developed with the information age.
While, for you, technology may classify as a power-plant or a microwave; tools used for business, enterprise, utility, or even cell-phones and laptops; tools used for convenience, efficiency, and work, for us Millennials, technology as it is today is an axiomatic truth.
Just as functioning drainage systems may have been unquestionable givens to our forefathers born into such a time, so too is the notion of devices to our generation. No doubt an impressive piece of engineering technology — but one that is integral to our lives, indeed, integrated into our daily functioning.
We did not enjoy the privilege of growing up within a micro-context, one that required physical presence in an environment to undergo experiences and shape one’s mind.
We do not know the simplicity and certainty of a physical identity alone determining our existence. Today, and yesterday, for a few years now, in fact, we have been living in a macro-context: a vastly, densely interconnected, global society, enabled by technology.
The environment a person interacts with is no longer limited to the physical world within which they are embodied — technology has unleashed onto us this new, digital one. And while it is easy for the generations shaped by the old world to sing praises about the enabler that is technology, it is the
Millennials who are the Guinea Pigs of the New World; whose cognitive and physical systems are being shaped, poked and prodded at by the untested, foreign, omnipotent digital paradigm within which they have been raised.
Phenomenon 1: Cognitive Load
The digital paradigm refers to a phygital existence: a combination of virtual and real, physical and digital experiences determining our subjective reality.
If, in the past, evolution has designed the cognitive systems of humans to meet the demands of the environment given our physical existence, we can say that this new digital paradigm of existence adds a ‘cognitive weight’, X, to our cognitive systems, since we now live in a physical and digital paradigm.
This is to suggest that some proportion of mental energy of a digitally embedded human is exerted on digital existence and the maintenance of a digital identity; a cognitive load that did not exist previously.
We can also explore the functional role of the digital paradigm — it serves as an information-acquisition tool, allowing the digital human to access larger volumes of information at a faster rate, and be cognitively shaped by contexts other than their immediate physical presence allows.
We can argue that this, too, adds a cognitive weight, Y, since we are effectively bombarded with more information than we have ever had access to.
What are the enablers that allowed the digital paradigm to form, exist, engulf and alter humanity? The first is lack of sufficient information about the pervasiveness of technology by the general public.
Older generations simply did not acknowledge the existence of the digital as a paradigm, rather, they treated it as a tool. While we were sometime subject to well-intentioned cautions about the perils of rotting one’s brain on a device, our parents, let alone our generation, barely grasped the extent to which technology governed our social interactions, communications and relationships, and would continue to do so increasingly.
The second is the sparse legislation and regulation surrounding technological innovation — through the 90s and early 2000s, tech companies were encouraged to move fast and break things, with little regard for the psychological factors that could result from disrupting time-tested social and cultural systems.
No evidence or research was required detailing the social benefits of launching a product or service prior to going to market — focusing on growth metrics and product quality was in fashion, so that’s what innovators did.
As a result, humanity was largely unprepared for a complete restructuring of social, cultural and cognitive systems. Immersion into the digital paradigm was complete, sudden and total, its behavioural and cognitive impacts significant, inexorable and inevitable.
Effect: Cognitive Implications
Cognitive overload in the digital paradigm is reshaping human cognition at an unprecedented rate. The Google Effect refers to the idea that the presence of search engines has reduced the amount of information humans remember.
We have begun treating the internet as an extension of our memory, using it as a storage for facts and knowledge that we would otherwise remember. While we store less information in our brains, this change has been accompanied by a boost in our ability to remember where information can be found.
Newer generations are criticized for poor memory — but our cognitive systems have optimized themselves to operate in an environment of information abundance. Because we have instant access to information, we don’t need to remember a fact — we just need to know where to find it.
This changing cognitive prioritization, a result of neural rewiring, could be an indication of another cognitive revolution. The last time it happened was when humans developed imagination and abstract hypothetical thinking — it took 40,000 years.
This time, it has taken 30. It is plausible, then, that this rapid and accelerated cognitive adaption as a result of an unprecedented cognitive load would have developmental and behavioural consequences.
Phenomenon 2: Cognitive Exploitation
We live in the information economy: data is bought and sold, and attention is the currency. No matter what the product, business model or value proposition, companies are betting on users giving attention to their product: whether scrolling through a feed, using an app, or subscribing, attention is the currency they need to meet their metrics.
‘Creating the best possible user-experience’ is reconstrued to mean ‘How can we best exploit behavioural dispositions and cognitive faculties to increase user engagement?’ Psychological warfare is the technique, and dopamine is the weapon.
Companies use dopamine-inducing stimulants to positively reinforce user behaviour when you engage with the platform. Operant conditioning to give you rewards — likes, retweets, shares — when you engage successfully with a platform, or punishments — losing a streak, or followers — when you reduce or stop engagement.
Carefully designed, colorful screens and icons activate your brain’s reward system, providing dopamine kicks. UX screens, designed to guide user-behaviour towards desirable outcomes, subconsciously manipulate you to act in ways you may not have otherwise.
Effect: Mental Health Issues & Behavioural Implications
While dopamine kicks are pleasurable in the short-term, they have persisting long-term behavioural and physiological effects. Receiving an attention-grabbing notification, getting likes on a picture, or other dopamine-inducing stimulants work by increasing the body’s naturally occurring dopamine levels, creating a state of pleasure.
Over time, the body is conditioned to expect higher dopamine levels to continue with its normal functioning, making dopamine stimulants addictive.
Gradually, through positive social reinforcement, we were conditioned into creating an environment that maximized the probability of dopamine kicks — that is, an environment where we could engage with technology conveniently and immediately, anytime, anywhere.
And this continuous, daily interaction with dopamine has been raising our baseline state — the rigorous, consistent use of devices means we have built up dopamine tolerance; we are chemically dependent on our devices.
Over the years, as dopamine tolerance built up, barriers to technology reduced: the global explosion of the smartphone made services increasingly accessible, competitive markets made tech affordable, governments prioritized connectivity in rural regions; apps became easier to use, broadened in functionality, interfaces improved, and an increasing amount of services moved from the physical to the digital paradigm.
Accessibility and incentive points to the increase in time spent on platforms: we scroll mindlessly, remain glued to the screen, long after free will permits.
You may have figured out by now, that this is a chemically-motivated, cyclical incentive structure: users demanding quicker, easier ways to get dopamine kicks, companies providing the ability to do that; companies making the world a better place, under the guise of innovation, driven by the need to be first-to-market; driving dopamine kicks.
The cycle is running in an infinite loop, and each iteration is shortening attention spans, breeding impatience, raising expectations and establishing entitlements for better, faster, easy-to-use tech.
With decades of scientific literature from a different world, scientists are struggling to discern, understand, and classify the factors contributing to mental health diseases in this digital paradigm; working hard to identify how exactly the constant battle for our attention is affecting our cognition and behaviour.
The number of ADHD cases in recent years has skyrocketed, teenage depression is at an all-time high, and unexplained anxiety has engulfed a generation. The world is only just coming to terms with the digital paradigm: the intricacies of our subjective phygital realities cannot be explained with the science of yesterday.
Physical health requires a biological diagnosis; mental health demands a cognitive one. And if cognitive systems continue to be fundamentally attacked, exploited and capitalized upon, mental health diseases will continue to plague generations to come.
Behavioural therapy and prescription drugs are treatment, but only the redesign of incentive structures can institutionally reduce psychological warfare, preventing mental health issues from arising to begin with.
The consequences of such incentive structures are not limited to the cognitive; the accompanying behavioural manifestations are ubiquitous.
In addition to designing for the human population, the last decade has seen an increase in emphasis on designing for the individual user; engineering a customized, personalized experience, tailored to the needs and preferences of the individual.
There is a huge emphasis given to human-centered design, customized interfaces, ‘prioritised’ newsfeeds and curated content — one could argue that the degree of importance given to the preferences, inclinations and desires of the user fosters narcissism, the idea that the user is the center of the digital universe enforcing an ideal in the subconscious mind that life in the physical world works the same way.
Younger generations, when exhibiting selfish, egostic behaviour, often have to be reminded that the universe does not revolve around them — can we really expect them to know better, if they have been conditioned in the digital paradigm to believe the exact opposite?
This essay is not intended to provide an excuse for obnoxious, unacceptable, or simply disrespectful behaviour. It is not to condone distractedness, impatience, or other behavioural manifestations of cognitive conditions either.
It is not to attribute blame to any particular group, nor is it to underemphasize the role of the individual in cultivating their own phygital experience. It is simply to highlight the role of the System in this process — one that is often underestimated.
Those Damn Millennials
- Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Random House, 2014.
- Sparrow, Betsy, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner. “Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips.” science 333.6043 (2011): 776–778.
- Hirschman, David. “Your Brain on Drugs: Dopamine and Addiction.” Big Think, Big Think, 6 Oct. 2018, bigthink.com/going-mental/your-brain-on-drugs-dopamine-and-addiction.