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Too Much Technology – Paying a Mental Price!

Dear Commons Community,

In the past two days, I have read  an article and a book review that dealt with the subject of the effects of  too much technology (email, cell phones, twittering, facebooking, multitasking, etc.) on our brains.

The article interviews a family of Internet addicts who fear that they are not functioning as well as they should because their brains are adapting too much to immediate and constant barrages of information to the point that they are distracted from other endeavors including each other.  For example, it describes the case of a teenage boy who is doing “C” work in school and who has trouble doing homework as:

“He could not focus on homework. No wonder, perhaps. On his bedroom desk sit two monitors, one with his music collection, one with Facebook and Reddit, ..His iPhone availed him to relentless texting with his girlfriend.”

It also describes the father as going to sleep with a laptop and cell phone on his chest.

The book, The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr also raises a similar alarm.    The reviewer sums up Carr’s book as:

“The Shallows” is most successful when Carr sticks to cultural criticism, as he documents the losses that accompany the arrival of new technologies. The rise of the written text led to the decline of oral poetry; … the television show obliterated the radio play;… the Internet has diminished our interest in reading books. …The incessant noise of the Internet, Carr concludes, has turned the difficult text into an obsolete relic.”

Both pieces are written for a general audience but they raise important issues for educators as to how do we integrate technology in our teaching and learning and at the same time balance  the activities of  our students.   While many faculty  have embraced the Internet technologies and are using course management systems and social networking to connect to our students, maybe we also need to slow down our activities and require them to read  the long and difficult texts.

The article concludes with a concern that too much technology limits our empathy and ability to relate with one another.   Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford University,  is quoted as saying that:

“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,…It shows how much you care… empathy,   is essential to the human condition. We are at an inflection point…A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”

Tony

For more information:

The NY Times article is available available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html?pagewanted=1&th&emc=th

The book review is available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Lehrer-t.html?scp=1&sq=The%20Shallows&st=cse

5 comments

  1. At the end of the day technology is a tool. Some people will use it to gain an advantage or otherwise enrich their lives, some folks will feel threatened by it and want to ban or limit it in some way, some folks will embrace it to the point of addiction. This isn’t anything new we tend to adapt and move on. I almost never write a letter these days since email is used by almost everyone that I would want to communicate with. Does this bahaviour change our brains? certainly I’m sure that my hunting, fishing and fire-building brain-cells are severly impacted.

    • Winston,

      You make an excellent point. The debate to which you refer is frequently referred to as technological determinism versus technological instrumentalism. The instrumentalists argue that technology is just a tool that people can opt to use or not. Your example of email is appropriate to a point. However, technological determinists would argue that simple technological tools start out as tools we can opt to use or not but at some point when wide acceptance evolves, people no longer have choices because of political, economic or social forces. A company today would probably commit economic suicide today it did not require its employees to use email for communication. Most countries throughout history always sought out the latest weapons and once their enemies acquired a new weapon, the other country had to have it or something better. It is a difficult discussion.

      Thanks for contributing to my blog.

      Tony

  2. Is social media keeping us more connected with our friends than 20 years ago? Constantly checking Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I think it has reconnected many people but out of everyone that has contacted me as old friends, none of them have kept in contact since. I’ve got no intention of keeping in contact with them either. If I wanted to contact them before the days of Facebook, I would have looked them up in the phonebook.

  3. Although I can appreciate all that technological advances bring us in terms of opportunites for growth, learning and acceleration of digesting and producing incredible amounts of information, there is legitimate cause for concern.

    Becoming engrossed in all that technology offers, does constitiute a real threat to inter-personal interaction between family members, friends and society as a whole. Especially for the sake of entertainment in many cases.

    We can certanly embrace the advances in technology as long as we are intentional about developing and maintaining other interests, skills and priorities.

  4. Dear Commons Community,

    In response to some of the recent concerns expressed about the effects of new media on our brains and mental behavior, Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, is the author of “The Stuff of Thought”, has an op ed piece in the NY Times that makes point that every new media technology has raised concerns about its effects on our minds. He states: “the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber….so too with electronic technologies.”

    Pinker acknowledges that “the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.”

    His conclusion is that: “knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.”

    Tony

    The full piece is available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/opinion/11Pinker.html?th&emc=th