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The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

A young friend recently introduced me to this book, which is required reading in a local high school curriculum.  I was really not in the mood to read this sort of thing at the time, but once I started it, I was hooked. Drawing from sources in neuroscience, philosophy, history, and literature, Carr proposes that technology steadily alters our patterns of thinking. Our use of the Internet in particular is rewiring our brains in the areas of working memory, long-term memory, attention, and comprehension.  In a nutshell, the process goes something like this: with the abundance of information in hypertext links, posts, updates, emails, ads, crawls, and flippers, and various other pings, and dings that we’re multitasking,  our  concentration becomes fragmented, which overloads working memory, which causes information to not be processed deeply enough to find its way into long-term memory, which interferes with comprehension. So our brains get really busy and excited when immersed in electronic media, but not  in a way that promotes contemplation and comprehension.  Sustained attention is necessary to forge those deeper links.

The chapter on memory was my favorite — well-researched and simply explained.  The ideas raise all sorts of interesting questions.  What are the long-term consequences of outsourcing our cognition to machines – on an individual and societal level?

Will habitual use of electronic media, particularly among children, erode the desire, or even the ability, to develop sustained attention? Being in schools and classrooms across districts everyday of the week I see more and more “smart” technology being implemented in classrooms at earlier and earlier ages.  Given the hand-brain-cognition connection (see Levin’s book The Hand for a comprehensive review of that topic) do preschoolers really need to have more iPads instead of 3-dimensional toys to manipulate with their hands? What are the gains and are they worth the cost?

The last two weeks of December are deliciously mine, mine, mine. (Well, mostly). To celebrate I decided I wanted to do something crazy and luxurious. I wanted to watch TV. Not Youtube or something on the Internet, but actual TV.

Sounds easy enough…

Here’s the thing: we don’t have cable and our antiquated television is one of those big, bulky contraptions that requires a converter box to receive a signal. It’s not at all user-friendly even though El-D acts like it’s incredibly easy to operate. Despite the many “How to Turn on the TV” tutorials he’s provided over the years, I remain mystified. All I can tell you is that poking the “ON” button on anything on or around the device never works. From my lessons, I have learned that there are least three steps required to get the thing going, yet there are four different remotes with an outrageous array of buttons, none of which do what they claim.  Believe me, I have pushed them all to no effect.

Why does one need this many buttons and switches to operate the TV set? I am not trying to fly an airplane here; I just want to watch…well, anything at this point – a rerun of Gilligan’s Island maybe? Or even a good old fashioned hemorrhoid cream commercial. I have a Ph.D., surely I can figure this out? Instead, like a chicken playing the video game Portal, I go flapping around, pecking at things and squawking…and the Portal never opens.

So I sit on the couch staring at the blank screen, longing for the good old days when the world was made of tangible, sensible things…back in the days when there was just one “on” button and it meant business – you had to physically get up and turn a knob to watch Johnny Carson…back when you were part of the reception process and that process involved things like antenna, aluminum foil, and perhaps an old pie tin.

Finally, El-D appears and by the wonders of his modern wizardry, the Miss Universe Pageant lights up the screen. Who even knew this sort of thing (i.e., televised beauty pageants) still happened in the world? I am instantly transported back to those “good old days” when we – Kiki, Roy, mom and I – sat in the old rockers in the den as we judged beautiful women parading around in swimsuits.

And that is how, against incredible odds, I wound up watching the epic mistake Steve Harvey made in crowning the (wrong) winner.

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