Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Is There A Downside To All This Technology?

Late Sunday evening Google had a problem. I do not know exactly what the root cause was, but for people across the Midwest, Blogger was broken. The Help Forum "Something Is Broken" began stretching from one to two to three pages of inquiries. In the morning, it was over ten pages long with many very seriously frustrated daily bloggers confused and not knowing what to do. Who moved my cheese?

My ritual posting of one of a painting a day at The Many Faces of Ennyman was thwarted and my blog was stuck with Sunday's painting based on a Martin Sheen image from West Wing. With no way to post here, I headed a little earlier than normal to the office. But as I drove my mind began to compose a short story. In the story there were thousands of people walking aimlessly around in the streets, some in awe at the scenery around them, some looking shell shocked. The story would be written in a manner to reveal layer by layer that the Internet was down, and without Facebook or Twitter or Blogger or YouTube the entire city was dazed and confused.

So it was that I saw this New York Times story on a friend's Facebook page: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price. According to reporter Tara Parker-Pope all these new technologies from cell phones to multiple open windows with emails and net surfing all happening simultaneously, all this technology is re-wiring our brains and not for better. Multi-tasking seems more productive in the short run, but in the long run, according to experts, it is leaving us frayed and fractured. And, as in my imaginary story, dazed and confused.

Here are a few eye-openers from the article:

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.

Dopamine is that juice in the brain that gets us juiced. Addicts live for it. A little further she writes:

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.

“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

Now frankly, I like multi-tasking. I just never associated the rush I get from being productive to a dopamine high. And as for the erosion of our ability to concentrate, I can look back in my thirty-plus years of journal writing and note that my brain has always been one that flits, like a bird, from branch to branch, never fully settling in one place, perching here and there and everywhere.

On the other hand, this might explain why, to keep their sanity, many people take up hobbies away from their computers and offices. Perhaps fishing has a therapeutic function in this tech age that we have not yet recognized. Certainly my art studio escapades are in some way a conscious retreat from this plugged in life that takes up so much of my waking life.

How about you? How are you being changed? What about this next generation? Should parents put more limits on how much time their kids can be online? At least we can say, "No texting at the dinner table." We had that rule in our house about reading... no books or mags at the table. It was a good rule.

Anyways, just a little food for thought.

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