your brain on technology

Over the last week I read some provocative books on digital technology, including Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains; William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry; Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody; Michael Lewis, Next; and Tim Challies, The Next Story. Challies does an excellent job summarizing the insights of the others, and he adds his own Christian perspective. It is easily the best place to begin.

Here are five things I’ve learned:

1. Texting has a proud and distinguished history. It began in Finland, when frightened boys figured out how to use the keypads on their Nokia phones to ask girls out. They passed their skill on to their parents, who decided they liked the control and concealment that came with texting.

This week I heard of a young woman who was talking with a friend on her phone. The conversation became too emotional, so they decided to hang up and text each other. When asked why she would do such a thing, the woman replied that she didn’t want the other person to hear her cry. Maybe our technology is not connecting us as much as we think?

2. The Internet is giving us Attention Deficit Disorder. The neurons in our brains are constantly reconnecting and creating new pathways, and so our brains adapt to whatever thinking style we are currently using. The Internet encourages rapid, shallow thoughts that skim along the surface of pictures and text (mostly pictures). The more we surf the web the more difficult it is for our brains to slow down and think deeply in a single direction.

Don’t believe it? How long has it been since you’ve read an entire book? Why don’t you sit down and read one now? It’s harder than it used to be, isn’t it? We are becoming skimmers rather than readers.

3. Google encourages distraction rather than reflection. This company makes money every time we click on one of their ads, so they have a vested interested in keeping our mouses moving. The last thing they want is for you to bog down and immerse yourself in a single story.

Stand up to their manipulation by reading the rest of this blog post, slowly and with deep thought (he said, manipulatively).

4. The Internet is destroying our memories. The first step to memory formation is attentiveness. We focus on a certain event, which then enables that experience to transition from our short-term to long-term memory. So what happens to people who lose their ability to focus? They lose the ability to develop long-term memories. There is a third thing too, but I can’t remember what it is. Oops.

5. The Internet never forgets. Every click you’ve ever made is stored somewhere, so either be careful what sites you visit or make sure you never become famous—because your dirty laundry could be dredged for all to see. Of course, we’re all going to stand before God someday, so we already have the best reason to be careful, whether or not we’re planning on becoming famous.

6. I learned lots of other things, but if these books are right, then few of you have read this far anyway, and if you have, you’re itching for a break. So I’ll save the rest for another short post.

15 Comments

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  1. Challies is not the best place to begin on this subject. John Dyer’s recent book “From the Garden to the City” is much better.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Eric. It’s hard to keep up with all the books on technology. I will look for Dyer’s now too, and at least say that Challies is the best of the books that I read.

  3. 1) The problem I have with the example here is that we don’t have an alternate non-technological universe to make a comparison as to which is “better”. For all we know, it was the ability to hang up and text if the discussion became too emotional that lent her the courage to talk about whatever issue it was in the first place.
    2-4) I think a bunch of this isn’t the fault of technology per se, but how individuals choose to use technology. Like you said, we could choose to read an entire book straight through. I wouldn’t be too surprised to find out that there are those people who still do so… and that many people who choose not to do so wouldn’t regardless of the internet and other technologies. On the contrary, one could argue that technology not only makes it easier to read a book (for those who choose to do so), but gives more options to more people as to how they do so (not just electronic book readers, but audio books as well).
    5) I’m not quite sure what the point is here. Our main reason for avoiding sin should be because it’s wrong, not because other people might find out about it. And we should be repentant whether they do or not anyway.

  4. Mike,

    Other books to look for are Egbert Schuurman’s “Faith and Hope in Technology,” Quentin Schultze’s “Habits of the High-Tech Heart”and “Responsible Technology” by Stephen Monsma.

    Deof,

    One of the things that a lot of these books point out is that saying “its not the technology’s fault, its how you use it” is wrong. Technologies embody cultrual norms and values. The tools we use can change they world, yes, but they also change us. One example Dyer uses in his book is the shovel. We can move dirt with a shovel but in using a shovel everyday, we also develop stronger arms and calloused hands. The tool helps us change the world but the tool also changes us in the process. And this happens regardless of why you are digging the hole. In the same way, digital technologies can change our attention spans or our memory.

  5. Mike, one thought I have on technology and our attention span … oh, angry birds. Gotta go.

  6. @ Eric E:
    1) “Technologies embody cultrual norms and values.”
    Either I am completely misunderstanding what you mean here or this is completely false. Each individual is relatively free to use (or refuse to use) a particular technology as he or she deems fit.

    2) “One example Dyer uses in his book is the shovel. We can move dirt with a shovel but in using a shovel everyday, we also develop stronger arms and calloused hands”
    I have problems accepting the validity of this analogy. First, what is true about physical changes is not necessarily also true about mental and/or psychological changes. Second, the changes caused by the shovel are all (at least potentially) beneficial. Even the calluses, however painful they may be, may serve to toughen up the skin on the hand. Thus, it fails to show how a tool, when properly used, can lead to atrophy. Third, it ignores that there would likely be changes in the accomplishment of any task. I can just easily build muscle (and perhaps get calluses) walking instead of driving to the store as I can shoveling. And imagine attempting to dig the hole without using any tools. Fifth, even if mental and or psychological changes could be proven after the use of technology, this would not necessary show that technology caused the changes. It could be that those who are more susceptible to such changes are drawn to technology because of the ease it offers (or at least claims to offer). Therefore, it is impossible to say with any certainty whether they would have fallen victim to such changes whether technology existed or not. Finally, it fails to note that a jackhammer would cause even less physical changes, provided proper protection and precautions are observed Thus, one could argue that this illustrates that the problem isn’t technology itself, but technology that isn’t sufficiently advanced.
    Note that my argument isn’t that technology is totally benign,

    3) “One of the things that a lot of these books point out is that saying ‘its not the technology’s fault, its how you use it’ is wrong.”
    Unless the authors provide better proof of this in the books, this is just an argument from authority.
    Note that I’m not I’m not claiming that technology is inherently safe, just that neither is it inherently dangerous,.. and that such dangers can be avoided by being properly prepared for them.

  7. I read Challies book last year and am reading through Dyre’s now. So far, Dyre is the best of the two hands down but Challies discussion is still helpful.

  8. All technology comes with a price… I’m always surprised how quickly and uncritically people adopt it. I didn’t say that technology was necessarily bad, just that it comes with a price that must be paid for using it. For example, I’ve seen first hand the price one pays for not being on Facebook — there is truth to the saying that if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist.

  9. Deof,

    I’m not looking for an argument and I have no real desire to convince you of anything. All I was doing was pointing out that the consensus of those who study technology and its relation to ourselves/culture disagree with you. All the books listed above are helpful introductions to the topic and can go into more detail than I care to here. But I will warn you that they are all introductions and probably don’t go into as much detail as you seem to be wanting.

  10. A number of years back I became aware of the phrase “continuous partial attention” coined by Linda Stone back in the late 80’s. On an internet forum I predicted that this would soon become identified with a disorder called “Continuous Partial Attention Disorder (CPAD)” which elicited the reply
    .”Does that mean people who pay partial attention but only intermittently might be suffering from IPAD?”

  11. Good thoughts, just ironic reading this on a blog.

  12. Dr. Wittmer, you’ve managed to write a post that’s brief but incisive. Witty too. I enjoyed reading about my own self-stultifying behavior.😉

    Do any of these books include the inverse of data on ADD & technology? Do they recommend mental practices that help one pursue study of complicated texts _and_ have fully present, authentic conversations?

    Does such a study exist? Some sort of Proven Mental Techniques for Human Excellence program?

  13. My apologies if I sounded argumentative. I’m not even sure I know enough about the issue to take a side in a potential debate. On the other hand, I do think we need to critically examine the conclusions reached by the authors (and not just them, but any other author) as much as we can and not accept them simply because they appear in a book. The two other main points I wanted to raise were first, that there are costs/changes incurred accomplishing a task whether one uses technology or not, and, second, that attributing changes that often occur with the use of technology as an effect of such usage runs the danger of being a post hoc, ergo proctor hoc fallacy.

  14. I READ THE WHOLE THING, I’LL HAVE YOU KNOW!! And, though I have already known most of what you shared, it was a great reminder..especially the comment about the internet never forgetting one single thing. I will never be famous, but GOD SEES!

  15. I linked to this post in an article I wrote on “Parenting in an Age of Technology.”

    http://stayontargetstayontarget.blogspot.com/2012/01/parenting-in-age-of-technology.html

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