ADHD and the Singularity

ADHD is a pretty controversial topic at the best of times; throwing the Singularity into the mix only adds to that. But that’s exactly what Simon at Betterhumans has done. He’s postulating that ADHD may be a sign of the human race adapting to an accelerating culture, and hence it could be taken as a symptom of the Singularity’s approach. A snippet:

“All of this leads to some interesting speculation. There is much debate about why rates of ADHD appear to be increasing. It may simply be increased diagnosis, but there do appear to be some actual neurological differences involved. So we can ask: Is ADHD some sort of reaction to the Singularity? And if so, might rates of ADHD provide some sort of barometer of progress? Might they have historically risen and fallen with major technological revolutions, such as the rise of the World Wide Web?”

Obviously, it would take a lot of heavy research to nail that correlation down, and half an hour of googling hasn’t found me much meaty or relevent data to quote. It’s an interesting suggestion, but I have to say I’m skeptical. The theory being presented smacks of Lamarckism, and I’m personally sceptical of the concept of ADHD being an entirely neurological problem.

Again, I’d like to see more data, but from what little I’ve heard and read (and experienced in public service jobs), it seems that ADHD is largely prevalent in low socioeconomic demographics, which to me suggests that the it is at least partly a result of deprivation and poor parenting, as many of the detractors of the diagnosis claim. Of course, I’m neither a sociologist or a doctor, so that opinion is strictly that – an opinion. And I’m certainly not suggesting that there aren’t external social pressures creating these problems, either. Poverty is a trap that no one chooses to fall into.

But it’s worth bearing in mind that ADHD is a prevalently first-world phenomenon. It may be that it only turns up in developed countries because we’re the only countries with the resources to look for and notice such things. Maybe a combination of the two ideas is true; ADHD may not be a physical problem of the brain, but a reaction to the world that the mind grows up in – to use a computing analogy, the mind’s input channels are bombarded with thousands of memes, viral ideas, ideologies and adverts, colours, lights and sounds, and there’s too much data for it to cope with and focus upon in the way that is accepted as ‘normal’. It’s a buffer-overload, perhaps.

But is the reaction of people to their world the right place to look for evidence of a coming Singularity? I’m not sure that it is, to tell the truth. That’s the place to look for changes in human society and culture, certainly. But from what I understand of the idea, the Singularity will largely be a matter of changes in technology, until technology is a more directly connected part of our physical bodies than it is now.

Granted, that may not be far off now, but at the moment our technologies can only effect us sociologically, or biologically at simple levels (i.e. injuries from misuse or overuse, or [arguably] addictive behaviour patterns). Once our technology is truly part of us, at the point of equal status to organs like the heart, brain or liver, then we may see evidence of the Singularity manifesting itself in our behaviour. Until then, we need to watch the technologies themselves for harbingers of the future.

But we’d be wise to keep an eye on the abilities of people to cope with our rapidly changing world at the same time – after all, the odds of the rate of change slowing down, Singularity or not, are exceptionally unlikely. It’s important that we all step forward together – it would be an ethical failure if we were to leave people behind in our wake for no reason other than their inability to embrace change.

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