Monday, June 7, 2010

Is Technology Bad For You?

This is just wrong on so many levels. Photo from the New York Times.

The New York Times has three articles on how technology--specifically information technology--even more specifically computers and smart phones--is affecting the human brain and human interaction. Here are the links to the articles here and here and here. There's also a couple of attention checking tests you can take. The researchers are finding that the use of technology is changing the way humans focus. Mainly it is affecting the ability to focus for a period of time on one thing. Furthermore, there are studies implying that the neurotransmitter dopamine is influenced by the influx of information and the use of texting and the internet.

Before I go further, a story. I'm walking into the local Wal-Mart. I look around--everyone is on their cell phone. Everyone! I am the only one walking towards the store without a phone stuck in their ear. I am looking around, enjoying the weather, feeling the breeze, looking at the cars and so forth. Near the handicapped parking spaces, I see a piece of paper on the ground. I go over to check it out. It's a $20 bill. Cool. I look around, wave it, yell, "Anyone drop this?" No reply--they're all still on the phone. I tuck the twenty bucks in my pocket. Living in the real world, using my senses, just paid me $20.

I have always been an information hound. I used to be late with papers because, as one of my profs noted, "There's always one more source." I would follow bibliographies as far as they would take me. I love books and read quickly and efficiently. I also love having sources close to hand. I used to read the dictionary for fun. Or drug books--seriously. The looking up of information on one drug will lead to another. Everything can turn into "6 degrees of separation" in my mind. The Internet for me then is just one more way to get information, one more way to find out things I don't know, or to verify things I think I know, or to add to my knowledge. That's one aspect of the internet, as a library. I think that is the healthiest part of the web for all of us.

The other part of the internet is the social aspect. Not just the obvious, like Facebook, e mail and blogging, but the interaction with larger society, like instant news. This has changed us tremendously, and is really almost the end point of the compression of time that has been going on since Gutenberg and his movable type. Information used to take decades to move from place to place, then it took merely years, then months, then weeks, then days, then minutes, then at the speed of light. Now, it's there, instantly, and as the article pointed out, we are created and wired in our brains to pay attention to stuff that pops up quickly. In our caveman days, and even today, that attention to quick appearing stimuli can save our very lives. So email, news bulletins, Facebook changes and so forth can capture our attention and distract us from focusing on things that are larger and longer. Also the new pulls us from the old, as the example from one of the articles of missing an older email attests.

I had to realize that in order to get things done, I had to quit answering the phone when it rang. I sometimes would have a problem at work in the hospital setting feeling that I had to answer that unit phone whenever it rang. But it distracted me from my own work of written documentation that I needed to get done. I still would pick up the phone if I was the only one available to answer it, but I stopped feeling like I had to respond to the stimulus of the phone's ringer.

I don't text. There are times that texting is really handy. But I don't do it. If I'm with other people I don't text or email or use the internet function on my BB. I was called out on it once and the person was in the right. When I am with people, I am with them and focused on them. I ignore other stuff. I'll even ignore the phone (that's what caller ID and voice mail/answering machines are for!). Now, I do like keeping up with my email, and with what is going on on the blogs I read and follow. Sometimes, I can't get to do that, and that can be a little tough. I feel like things are going on without me, the same way I feel when I don't get to check on the news. Leave me without a newspaper, or TV and I feel the same way. But I get over it. I get a reality check on the cell phone every time I visit my mom. She's still out of cell phone range. It takes a day or two, but after awhile, you find other things to do.

Here's a test for you to see if you are having a problem with technology in your life, from Times columnist Tara Parker-Pope who spoke to experts on the topic:
1. Do you always check your email before doing other things?
2. Do you frequently find yourself anticipating the next time you'll be on line?
3. When you are on line and someone needs you, do you usual say, "Just a few more minutes." before stopping?
4. Have you ever lied about or tried to hide how long you've been online?
5. Have you ever chosen to spend time on line rather than going out with others?
6. Does going on line lift you from a depressed or nervous mood?
7. Do others in your life often complain about the amount of time you spend using technology?

Some of those questions got my attention! Ouch! Others of them remind me of the questions used to screen for alcohol abuse.

Why is it important that we concern ourselves with the impact of technology on our brains? Well, if we don't learn how to moderate ourselves with technology, I believe that it will have significant impact on our ability to analyze and get the big picture. I think that it will stifle creativity and problem solving. Most importantly, I believe that it will decrease the amount of time we spend interacting with real people, and that will have an adverse effect on our ability to empathize with others, to put ourselves in the place of the other, to take our eyes off our selves. We run the risk of becoming even more narcissistic then we already are.

The Internet is a part of a rich life. Just a part, not the whole. Balance is the key. Our brains will adapt, but just because we've developed a new skill, it doesn't mean we can't practice the old skills. What old skills you say?

Oh, like talking to your spouse face-to-face at the breakfast table, for a start.


Ann T. said...

Dear The observer,
Wow, I see how reading this article also had you moving toward the 'hook up' thing over at my blog. Like nobody talks, they just don't have the attention span for it, so, where's the relationship?

I was also talking about this with somebody today in the sense that I feel left behind with many of these technologies, but don't see much value to many of them.

I have a lot of learning to do, I suppose, but there are some things, like having an uninterrupted conversation, that I am not willing to give up.

What a Double Fantastic Post.
Thanks for writing it.

These comments are I'm sure just the tip of the iceberg for what I'll be thinking next.

Much appreciated,
Ann T.

Bob G. said...


This is a fantastic post!

I've said for some time that I found the "dependence" upon ALL this tech was basically killing off REAL social skills in people....and you've proved the point wonderfully (and made some!

I don't even own a cell phone (but I do have some 2-way radios - way cheaper - no pay plan to worry about...LOL)

Try and find someone who can WRITE a letter these days...or hold a cogent conversation.
Then read some letters from Victrorian or even Civil War times...astounding how much we've lost.

Now I DO like the internet, but I keep it always in some interactive Encyclopaedia Brittannica...or a dictionary/thesaurus...all rolled into one.
Plus it makes traversing LONG distances to discuss things with people like yourself a LOT more "cost-effective".
I can't imagine having to DRIVE to all these states...!

I like our "electronic neighbor's fence", as it were.

You've brought up some extremely important issues...and sadly, I think we're becoming (as a society) even MORE dependent upon all these contrivances.
Hard to imagine that only ONE EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) could render it all USELESS.

But then, I could still compose a letter to someone...or know how to use a land line phone.

Brilliant post.

the observer said...

Ann T:
Sometimes I think we have stuff for stuff's sake. I know that I resist updating for the sake of updating. I don't have to have the latest and greatest in technology.

I have no plans to give up face to face interaction, even tho in many ways the digital neighborhood is easier to navigate at times. What's the saying, "the good is the enemy of the great." That's the way the 'net is with real human interaction.

thanks for the comment!

The Observer

the observer said...

It's kids I have the most concern about--and that empathy thing. It seems to me that we have some young people out there who have no public/private boundaries and no appreciation for what their actions mean to other people. I think the internet makes this worse.

Your other points are well taken--I do have a cell phone, it is my only phone right now.

Yes, an EMP would be terrible. I know that we are vulnerable in so many ways to this.

thanks for the thoughtful (and full) comment!


peedee said...

Hello, My name is Paula and I'm addicted to my iPhone.

When Lauren was in Navy Bootcamp we had 8 weeks of letters. She only got one phone call and that was on Christmas day which was at week 7. Oh how I enjoyed writing and sending her letters. Some I typed out on the puter and added pics and such, but others I actually wrote. And she had to write hers out because they didnt have puters to use.

It was a joy and I saved all the letters for her scrapbook. It'll remind her of a time when she actually communicated with written word.

Great post girl!

the observer said...

All at once, in proper recovery fashion: "Hi Paula!"

Like I said, balance. Add new skills, keep the old ones.

Might be useful also to maintain the old manual skills, in case the power goes out!

And what a great keepsake you guys ended up with!

The Observer