I am sitting in a public space. My laptop is on the table in front of me. My WordPress account is currently on my Google Chrome browser. I have Tabs open to Facebook, an article, the Writing in Digital Spaces course website, and a Google search for MRI brain scan validity, which was ultimately unsuccessful. As I write, there are two women across the lounge trying to figure out how to access the camera roll on an iPhone. Both women are grey-haired and complaining about how they don’t understand technology. One laments how her grandchildren know how to use her phone better than she does and both women worry this computer activity is going to have a negative impact on their developing brains.
In the age of electracy, there are still holdouts, determined that technology is holding us back, changing how we live, and ultimately destroying our very humanity. They are correct on one account; technology is changing how we live. However, this is not a negative course in the events of human history. Change is inevitable. Stagnation is dangerous. Progress moves forward and this time, progress is paving a path in binary.
Nicholas Carr: Master of Irony
Author Nicholas Carr spoke out against how much damage the common use of the Internet is doing by publishing an article about it on the Internet. He begins his article, Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains, already steeped heavily in irony. As he builds his argument against the very medium he’s using, the proverbial eyebrow of skepticism continues to arch. When he gets to the section where he writes about the dangers of hyperlinks distracting the reader and rending their memories flawed and their concentration useless, one can only wonder why he is employing the same hyperlinks he’s railing against in an article railing against them.
Aside from the obvious irony of the situation, Carr does make several good points about how the internet is rewiring brains and changing how society absorbs information. However, he fails to see this change as the next step in human progress and an inevitable evolution. Human brains have always been changing. Just because this change is something society has never encountered before, doesn’t mean it’s negative.
Master of None: How We Are Learning Everything And Retaining None of It
Starting by citing a study regarding the how brain functions different between regular internet users and non-internet users, Carr writes that more brain activity that shows up on an MRI doesn’t necessarily mean more productive activity. “Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain,” Carr informs us. He continues to discuss how the use of the Internet hyperlinks confuse readers. Even the presence of a hyperlink, without interacting with it, is enough to distract a reader and ensure they absorb and remember less of the information presented.
He does have a point here. In an attention economy, where information is readily available and attention becomes the prized commodity, Internet users are often so inundated with information it is physically impossible for one person to read, deeply comprehend, and remember everything they come across in just one day in the internet. You could say that everyone is becoming a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Which makes more sense if you know the rest of that idiom: “but oftentimes better than a master of one”. Internet culture now revolves around the idea that one focus is simply not enough when there are so many other objects of study available.
Nothing could be truer when it comes to someone finding a job using the Internet as its primary duties. On job applications for promotions managers, social media directors, virtual assistants, and others, there isn’t the question; what website are you an expert in? An applicant is expected to know how to navigate multiple sites and applications. Most often they will also need to learn a new system or program in order to work for the company. It’s no longer acceptable to be a master of one. You have to be familiar with many and be able to learn new software and websites quickly.
It’s true that the Internet is responsible for this phenomena and also feeds into it. However, people now have more exposure to programs and sites than ever before. It requires the average person to be adaptable, flexible, quick-thinking, and even quicker-learning. We are making sacrifices for our technology. But all advancements come at a price. Carr seems pretty convinced that the price is our ability to concentrate and remember. However, he’s not the first person to cast doubt on emerging technology.
Literacy: The Enemy of Memory
Plato, in his dialogue, Phaedrus, discusses the dangers of literacy. That’s right. Plato is pretty sure writing things down is detrimental to our society. He relates a story of a man going to the Egyptian king telling him, “O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discover the potion for memory and for wisdom.” This potion is writing. The king, he says, replies back,
In fact, it [writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external, and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.
It’s unfathomable to us that anyone would question the legitimacy of literacy. But just as change is inevitable, so is the pushback against it. As soon as a new technology is introduced, there will always be detractors and those who mourn for simpler days gone by. But this technology, what Plato relates will damage the memory, is seated in a lack of knowledge of how the human brain works and, not only that, but in the idea that the only brains which exist are neurotypical and are capable of everything the next brain is capable of.
Carr, too, acts as if memory and concentration are a given for everyone and struggling to keep up with the technological age is a sign of the times and not something which can be caused by other sources. However, brains are not all created equal and the erasure of those who aren’t working with the same memory, concentration, and cognition their model brain has is limiting and discouraging.
The Reality of Memory and Focus
Human memory is notoriously faulty. Studies have shown that false memories can be implanted with mere suggestion, even eyewitnesses can’t remember events, and memory is far more fragile than most people think it is. Memories are not the video cameras with instant replay that we think they are. Instead, they are amorphous solids which can and will change overtime and with outside input. When neurotypical people aren’t able to recall memories with accuracy, people who live with any kind of mental health issues or disability are sometimes at a greater loss.
When it comes to concentration, that is also not a given when everyone, not just people with average brain chemistry, are taken into consideration. For example, those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often enjoy the internet because of its fast pace, easily available entertainment, and constant stimulation. However, this can result in Internet addiction and a variety of other negative outcomes if not managed.
The solution to this problem for anyone who memory or focus issues might be to give up the internet or web browsing. But as Reddit user Br0methus pointed out, “Considering that it’s 2014, saying that you’re giving up the internet is sort of like saying that you’re giving up electricity. Good luck with that plan.” Simply put, the Internet is already too integral to society for someone to consider giving it up and still being a member of said society.
You Can Never Escape the Interwebs
Internet use has become ubiquitous in American culture. With children as young as four being formally educated in how to operate a computer, there is simply no escaping the far reaches of the internet. The explosion of technology in recent years has made it clear that society has become so electrate not being a part of this electracy means one would miss out on some of the key experiences in being a member of society.
But why would one want to do without the advances and advantages of technology?
The readily available information and increasing accessible technology has been a factor in making life better, not worse. It’s now easier than ever to stay in touch with loved ones through social media. Everyone has readily available opportunities to develop and use their voice. It’s possible for each person to carve out an area of cyberspace and make it their own. People can find information, from profound questions to local restaurant hours. Information, socialization, communication, and entire lifestyles are all available with the free WiFi you get at the mall.
Of course, this doesn’t even begin to broach how these advances in technology have helped medical science improve the lifespans and quality of life for people everywhere. There are simply so many positive occurrences the Internet brings to society, it would be silly to attempt to list them all. The sacrifices we make for technology ultimately outweigh the benefits we receive. Beyond that, culture has shifted from what it was. But what it’s changing into is not bad simply because it’s different.
Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em
In this age of electracy, the technologically savvy are coming out ahead. With not only the exposure to a variety of platforms and websites, but the ability to learn new ones quickly and adapt to new situations, those who are able to hunt and gather in the electronic data forest are going to be the ones who survive. As time marches on and the Internet drives diversification, being a master of one program, website, or application is going to be useless compared to someone who has been exposed to a wider variety of technology.
There are simply so many useful and innovative programs available for people to use. Being able to navigate more than one serves not only the person navigating them, but the developers and creators of the products. The average web browsing experience integrates multiple websites and forms of technology. All you have to do is Google to find webpages, images, videos, news, shopping, and more about anything imaginable. More information and more opportunities to learn are now available than ever before. And this shows no sign of slowing down.
You Don’t See It Coming, When The Future Comes Knocking
There’s no debate about the fact that the world is changing. The world is always changing. The question is; are you going to keep up with its pace?
There’s no rule that everyone has to like change, embrace technology, or champion either. Each person is only bound to do what their conscious dictates and they should be free to live out their own choices. But not fully participating in society is going to result in personal detriment as well as a detriment to society dues to the voice and contribution lost.
Many people, like the ladies in the lounge who couldn’t figure out the camera roll, have already given up. Instead of adapting to technology and learning how it functions, they have decided technology is unfathomable and since it’s unknowable, it is suspect and possibly dangerous. Which is their right as individuals. But the woman didn’t get to share the photo of her grandson and neither person could take part in that experience.
In an age where the world increasingly revolves around the Internet, not keeping up is no longer a choice to take casually. It shuts down understanding, access to events, and full participating in an electrate society. The tools to learn everything there is to know about the Internet are readily available. But you have to know how to use the Internet, to get to them.
As far as I’m concerned, technology continues to improve our lives. Whether making more information available, connecting more people, allowing these people to use this medium in different and interesting ways, or any of the other myriad instances where technology has changed and enhanced our society. Even if you disagree that technology is a good thing, there’s no arguing that technology is the way of the future and there is no slowing down its dissemination throughout the world.
In the end, technology is taking over. We have to either get on board or get out of the way.