Is it my imagination or has there been a lot of media attention and discussion these days on the topic of new media and how it is distracting, deterring, and damaging us? Just feels like there’s been quite a few books, articles, NPR broadcasts coming at us on the topic of late. Maybe it started with the Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic article (quickly followed by his book), Is Google Making Us Stoopid….but, no, for me, it started with the book (which was also first an essay) by William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry. I found Power’s writing to be an even-handed treatment of the topic. In it, he gives a very good history of the human fear of new technologies and what they might do to our humanity. He talks about Socrates lamenting this insidious new invention – the written word; the fears over Gutenberg’s printing press and how everyone would use the new technology to libel each other and undermine social order; and Neil Postman’s (Amusing Ourselves to Death) dire warnings about the way that television confounds serious issues with entertainment. And – Powers’ titular story – about Hamlet, when confronted with the ghost of his father, consulting his “tablet” – apparently an Elizabethan instrument (an erasable tablet) for recording lists, names, and other information to serve as a memory assist (look it up – very cool).
Powers is a keen observer. While he is an avowed lover of paper, I also got the feeling from his writing that he really understands our digital culture. His knowledge is deep and, like a good critic, he sits objectively on the outside of it, really trying to understand – the good and the bad. He’s not an evangelist for it or against it. You get the clear message that he is well aware that humans have much more to gain from technology, than they will loose – it’s just that he is concerned about his own perceived changes in his personality and habits. For him, and his family, they’ve taken to unplugging on the weekends. They turn off all computers and handheld devices from Friday night until Sunday night and, as a result, feel refreshed and ready to go once again on Monday. An interesting approach. And one that supports his basic premise that the behaviors we are adopting around our technology and our devices are worth examining.
Then came the neuroscientists going on vacation together in the wilds of Utah. Five neuroscientists went on a May vacation together, off the grid – beyond an internet or a cell phone signal – accompanied by one of my favorite NY Times reporters, Matt Richtel. Their intention was to examine more closely that disconnected experience – not just how it felt, but what was going on neurologically. How does the use of digital devices change the way we think and behave and does disconnecting from them reverse the effect? The result was a NYTimes article (of course) and a rash of interviews, press coverage, and even an episode of Fresh Air, with Terry Gross (a sure sign that you’ve arrived in the public’s consciousness).
I found this last one kind of irritating. First off, the neuroscientists weren’t just unplugging, they were on a bucolic adventure, rafting the San Juan River. Yeah, I think my brain might be energized by that as well. Though they were quick to not draw any hard and fast conclusions, I do worry about the rash of easily digestible neuroscience that seems to be bandied about these days. Brain mapping, plasticity studies, neurobusiness coaching (you think I’m making it up), and such. These scientists, of course, know better. They know that what’s going on in our brains is much much more complicated than can be explained by one five-day rafting trip without your android. But the hype and press around it didn’t do justice to that complexity and, I fear, just gave ammunition to luddite thinkers.
And that’s what I worry about. That technophobic school supervisors, nervous parents, and uninformed politicians will use books like Carr’s, experiments like Powers’, and sound bytes out of Matt Richtel’s article as justification for calling a halt to it all. I can see them waving around the article or the book, forecasting our doom if we continue down this digital path, and banning cell phones and laptops in our schools (again – you think I’m making it up – read this). Absolutely it is well worth examining our technology-based behaviors. But let’s do so with an open mind, an objective perspective, and a clear understanding that – just like the alphabet, the printing press, and television – these technologies will enrich our lives if embraced creatively, wisely and well.