Long before the dawn of Google and Facebook and the age of mobile devices, Albert Einstein, one of the most brilliant brains of the 20th century, is purported to have predicted: "I fear the day technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots."
Whatever the truth of this attribution, it seems the prophecy may be coming true.
While it is broadly construed that new technology exists to improve the quality of our lives, two new pieces of research suggest that our engagement with it is having a negative impact, stifling our sense of wellbeing and even our intellectual growth.
A recent survey by trend forecasters the Future Foundation, based on a survey of 5,000 Britons, observes how most people who use social networks like Facebook and Instagram have given in to the temptation to put a little gloss on their lives. But instead of giving them a boost, all those selfies and party images are doing quite the opposite and creating a culture of intimidating social comparison: according to the study, those that frequently engage with social networks are more likely to feel inadequate than those that do not.
While only a third of Britons believe that they are not living up to their full potential, more than half (56 per cent) of people who use social media feel that they are under-performing, either in body image, career, mood or energy levels.
And young men are likely to feel it the worst: one in three men aged between 25 and 34 wish that they were more like the person they had portrayed on social media, than the one they are in real life.
It’s a bizarre state of affairs, this self-created paranoia, but one upon which brands might capitalise in their efforts to engage with hard-to-reach Millennials and Gen Y. Brands that show empathy for this struggling mindset, that reflect their reality rather than a rose-tinted world, are more likely to cut-through; those that serve content that instructs or guides them through real-world dilemmas – that they are experiencing now – are more likely to achieve deeper engagement. We at Hunterlodge have helped our University clients to make quality connections with social networkers by broadcasting video content featuring someone like them, talking them through the maze of revision, University short-listing and application. Arming social networkers with this content not only provides invaluable personal direction but also helps to bolster their social profile – sharing helpful and inspiring content with their connections helps to suggest they are ahead of the curve, and brands that arm them with that social currency can only benefit from the resulting amplification.
But social profile and self-esteem are not the only merits at risk of being undermined through engagement with technology. Another recent survey by software security group Kaspersky suggests that our very intellect, our capacity for deeper thought, is at risk too.
The research, titled The Rise and Impact of Digital Amnesia, warns that the ease with which information can be so easily sourced online is making shallower thinkers of us all. The survey, based on the experiences of 6,000 consumers across Europe, shows that one in three consumers is happy to forget, or risk forgetting information they can easily find – or find again - online. When faced with a question, a third (36 per cent) of European consumers would turn to the internet before trying to remember and a quarter (24 per cent) would forget an online fact as soon as they had used it.
Such dispensability of information risks stifling intellectual development and creativity. Surely the effort of learning is critical for that learning to become ingrained? And if information is so easily sourced surely the pleasure of discovery is lost? Isn’t that pleasure vital for fuelling the dissemination (and application) of that learning? I’m reminded of the Victorians, who, as part of their life education, would embark on Grand Tours, at great time and financial cost. These were physical journeys of discovery which culminated in, arguably, the greatest era of invention in history and gathered the pace for Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
But what revolution can come from easily acquired, but ultimately disposable, facts?
Brands can altruistically turn the tide here - and deepen their consumer engagement in the process -by placing their products and values in the context of a wider discussion, a discussion that can stimulate thought and debate. It’s a case of simply shifting focus, from talking up one’s products to talking with one’s customers about the things that matter to them. Providing a platform for self-expression has been proven to reap dividends for brands: a survey by 22squared, conducted to ascertain the key drivers of word-of-mouth, found that almost 1-in-3 brand-related conversations were prompted by the brand “helping people to express who they are or what they aspire to be as individuals”. So, far from detracting from one’s core brand proposition, sparking conversations with consumers will not only draw them closer to you but create the potential to make them your noisiest advocates.
And if, through those conversations, brands can help consumers to be the individuals they want to be – rather than what bogus social networks suggest they should be – then so much the better.
Paul Phillips is head of media at Hunterlodge Advertising.