Are we all mostly Wired and distracted?


Crucial as it may be, some say the internet is distracting us and making us lose focus. The internet is crucial, we can’t get by without it. But some say it’s rewiring our brains and making us stupid. According to Matt Richtel in the New York Times, the choice now of mobiles, social networks and internet is affecting the ability of young people to focus and set priorities. Downtime to the brain is like what sleep is to the body, and the constant barrage of technology is preventing that from happening. Richtel follows a bunch of students, looking at the way technology affects their brains. He cites the case of one student who couldn’t get through his summer reading of Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s not that big a book. Instead he spent the summer uploading videos to YouTube. On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.” While this affects adults too, researchers say that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks. As a result, they become less able to sustain attention. Advertisement: Story continues below Still, you do wonder whether this is altogether true. Technology is with us, we need to adapt. MG Siegler in TechCrunch compares it to the claims made back in the 50s and 60s that television rots your brain. “New technology is going to keep coming at us that’s going to alter the way we live. To try to pretend like it doesn’t exist, or to automatically assume that it has to be a bad thing that’s going to lead to the corruption of our youth is ridiculous. Embrace and change. I just don’t see a reason why all of these great tools can’t help us learn more, rather than less,’’ he writes. Siegler is right insofar that technology is essentially neutral. I’ve certainly learned more about the world and I read a lot more because of the internet. But that really comes down to how it’s used. Others might use it differently, which is fine. It’s each to their own. It’s not just young people who are affected by technology. It changes the way we all operate. Sometimes for better, and sometimes not. Some people tell me they have stopped reading books because of the internet. With the constant barrage of bits, they say their thinking these days is more active, less contemplative. Still, online bingeing is pretty much the same as the way we binge on sweets and alcohol. When that happens, some good old fashioned restraint might be in order. I have always found that the best way for me to handle distractions when I’m working online is to set rules, set aside specific times for tasks and to control the number of notifications that pop up on my screen. It’s not that hard. And I still read about 100 books a year, you just make the time. Several weeks ago, I wrote a column on some work done by journalist Nicholas Carr on how the internet is rewiring our brains, turning us from people who absorb information into skimmers. It even changes the way we read text. In the old days, people read with their eyes going from left to right (or right to left if it’s Hebrew). Carr cites studies showing that people now read with their eyes skipping around the text, searching out the best bits of information. And of course, it means that people are now more easily distracted. The internet, Carr maintains, might be fostering stupidity. Some time ago, Carr wrote a provocative piece Is Google Making Us Stupid. I blogged about that here. Carr’s argument has created lots of discussion in articles and blogs around the world. There are many different views on this issue which will be debated for years by scientists, particularly with some studies showing that internet use can actually stimulate brain function. I would take it further and say that the internet would be absolutely crucial for really old people, not only because it keeps them active and stimulated but more importantly, it connects them to the world. There is no doubt that the internet has transformed society, changing business politics, practices and the way people interact. It has given us so much but, if Carr is right, it has come at a price. But then, when you think about it, everything you do affects the brain. When reading was invented, it revolutionised our thinking and the way we used our brains. The same could be said for cinema and TV. The internet is no different. As one University of California scientist Gary Small says, it’s a really difficult issue to address. “We tend to oversimplify when we argue whether technology is making us smart or making us stupid. The brain is complex and technology is complex; it’s the content, timing, and balance of what we’re doing that’s important. We can argue whatever we want with so little data. It’s not settled; we need to study it. These are the technologies that are part of our lives, so we need to be scientific about it and not conclude from the outset whether it’s all good or all bad. We need to understand it and use it in a way to enhance our lives,” Small says. How has the internet changed your life? Do you agree with Carr that the internet is leaving us more distracted and unable to focus? Or do you think the changes are positive. Is the internet making us stupid or smarter?

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