Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Net Negative

I love what the internet has done for information availability. When I was a kid, before there was a public internet, one of my favorite places was the library. When I was there I felt at home. I could look up just about anything and read 'til my heart was content. Today I have what could be considered the entire world's libraries at my finger tips.

History of Information Technology
In ancient times books were expensive and the knowledge they contained was only available to the privileged. One of the most famous libraries of all time was the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Scholars from all over the world would go there and research information. Often times these scholars brought new information with them that would be added to the libraries volumes. The library's founder, Ptolemy I, was said to have had the goal of filling the library with a copy or every book in existence. With an estimated inventory of around a half a million scrolls, he came very close to achieving that goal.

In 1440 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. This made books more available since it was exponentially easier to print them with movable type than copy them by hand. This facilitated the spread of knowledge and opinion, changing everything. Now nearly anyone with enough ambition could print something and spread his ideas. Even the Bible could be made available in the common language of the people. This was a huge threat to the established power structure and in large part lead to the European Reformation.

Today the internet has disrupted society in a similar way. Now literally anyone can publish his ideas just as I am now. This is changing the way people learn, get their news and communicate. Old forms of publishing from the newspaper to the handwritten letter are quickly disappearing. In some obvious ways this is very beneficial, but in other less obvious ways, some of which will not be fully understood for years to come, it is very detrimental.

Dangerous Distractions
Past improvements in information technology such as the Gutenberg press had side effects that indirectly lead to disturbances in society and even dangerous events such as religious wars, but it never directly made life more dangerous. Being able to read the Bible in your native tongue instead of having to learn a dead language is not by any stretch of the imagination hazardous to the mind or body. Likewise even reading subversive literature like Thomas Paine's Common Sense isn't going to kill anybody in and of itself.

Today's information technology however, has proven to be most deadly. Though it be true that it usually is the irresponsible use of the technology that leads to the hazard, it is hazardous non-the-less. One example many people are waking up to is texting while driving. One estimate is that around 16,000 deaths can be linked to texting and/or talking while driving. Some places have even passed laws in view of the dangers of text walking.

If that's not enough there is also growing concern about distracted doctors. This New York Times article explains how doctors and nurses are more and more distracted by tablet PCs and cell phones. True, patients are benefiting to a degree by being connected to medical records and having advanced diagnostic tools at their doctor's finger tips, but the distraction of too much information is both interfering in the human relationship with the patient and creating an information overload for the physician. In addition there are also hair raising accounts of surgeons taking personal phone calls and anesthesiologists shopping online.

Your Brain on IT
Some who use the internet and smart phones excessively have noticed a drug like affect on themselves, even to the point of feeling addicted. When giving up the use of these devices they report being anxious, feeling disconnected and an inability to coordinate basic daily activities. Unlike giving up drugs, however, the internet and the devices we use to access it are difficult to completely eliminate from our lives.

Most people know that its not especially healthy to binge on internet surfing or social media, but exactly how much harm does it do? In short, the internet is literally re-wiring our brains. There is actually a transformation in the firing pattern of our neurons that is not so beneficial. Studies have shown less activity in the prefrontal cortex. This makes us less thoughtful and adaptable and more impulsive and mechanical.

In his article Is Google Making Us Stupid, Nicholas Carr explores how the internet is making us shallower in our thinking. He makes the point that our malleable brains have adapted to reading online with all of its hyper links and RSS feeds. That's right, our brains have been re-wired to scan large volumes of information quickly at the expense of being able to concentrate on any one thing deeply. Where as in prior times people would spend hours reading a book and ruminate over its contents, thinking deeply about its meaning, we today have become merely information processors with no time or attention span for such deep thinking.

Another frightening result of this change is the loss of our creativity and even our sense of self. Because we are loosing the ability to concentrate on anything for long periods of time we are also loosing the reflection and contemplation necessary to come up with new ideas or even formulate our own opinions. Rather than reading a book with nothing more than black type on white paper and at most an illustration to distract us, leaving us with lots of time to pause and think about what the author is saying and how we feel about that, we now are confronted with pages full of links that go in all directions surrounded by blinking ads. I really think this threatens to make us all two dimensional people, broad in our knowledge with no depth of understanding, even of ourselves.

Zero Sum
Is it possible to have our cake and eat it too? Can't we have access to this vast knowledge base without loosing our depth of understanding? Will we be able to keep up with twitter feeds and still read War And Peace? Will we be able to maintain this connection to the world as a whole without loosing ourselves? Without strictly limiting the use of the internet in our lives it would seem the answer is no.

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