Thursday, July 8, 2010
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For many years, parents and teachers have observed the hypnotic effect that technology has on children -- first television, and then a whole host of other electronics such as video games, computers, cell phones, and other devices. This effect may be more than psychological; Nicholas Carr, in "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains," presents evidence that our electronics may actually be causing biological changes to our brains that interfere with deep, concentrated thought.
Carr explores historical developments such as the alphabet and the clock and their impact on human behavior. Citing neurological and psychological research, Carr first establishes that the human brain is plastic -- or changeable -- in contrast to the outdated belief that new pathways were impossible once the brain was developed. Additional studies add to the case that pop-up messages, multiple-window computer screens and visual overstimulation are actually rewiring us so that we require this flood of data that then renders contemplation for any sustained period impossible.
We have already seen a cultural shift with the expectation of immediate response. Anyone who has been to a movie theater recently has observed the irresistibility of the small blue screen. I observed perhaps the ultimate hypnotic submission on Easter Sunday in church when the man next to me received and read a text message during the Lord's Prayer -- and proceeded to respond! Carr argues that this may be more than behavioral.
"The Shallows" is neither a rant against technology nor a self-help manual about how to stave off the negative effects of technology. It is a cautionary tale regarding the siren song of our gadgets and applications and the cost that they might be exacting. His book provokes important thought for parents, teachers, and all of us with synaptic connections to our devices. Read it -- if you can put aside your Blackberry or iPhone long enough to plow through it.
David L. Davies is headmaster of Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany.