- The author, checking his email.
This Times profile—of an incredibly gadget-connected, screen-obsessed California family—is frigging scary. So scary, in fact, in its depiction of a family dynamic dominated by screens leading elsewhere, it scared me into pontificating about THE WAY WE LIVE NOW.
Ok, before you roll your eyes and assume this is yet another “technology is bad” screed, I will concede that the ubiquity of technology is irrevocable and, by and large, value-neutral. I will also concede that the brains of the first wholly internet-immersed generation will be different from ours (by “ours” I’m speaking of people born before 1987), and that it is impossible to tell if that “different” will be better or worse. However, even though I will concede that technology improves our lives in innumerable ways, I will not concede to being happy about what it’s doing to my brain. And here’s where I get scared.
For a long time people thought that the brain basically built itself—its neural pathways, its chemical balances—in the early stages of life, coming up with a finished brain just in time for junior year abroad. Well, it turned out that wasn’t exactly the case, that the brain, in all its gray, spungey glory, was constantly reconfiguring itself based on stimuli, right into late middle age. This was good news for cognitive therapists, alcoholics and just about anybody with half a brain: the adaptive, regenerative properties of the organ meant that if you worked hard you could train your brain.
Which brings me to the “transitional” generation, those of us who grew up off the Internet, off personal gadgets, but who are now heavy users. Our brains built themselves based on fairly specific types of stimuli based in linear focus, the storage of data and rote procedural understanding (I’m referring here to your average middle-school history, chemistry and math classes, circa 1990). Our brains developed based on a particular regimen of mental exercise that we’ve now replaced: facts are no longer to be stored in our heads and the answer to any problem can be crowd-sourced in 30 seconds. We no longer have to remember anything but rather synthesize and juxtapose what we find in the collective memory of the Internet. Now, as I conceded above, this might lead to some incredible intellectual breakthroughs for the generation that never had to sit through endless days of rote memory drills, whose brains will exist comfortably within the cloud and who will have so much more room (and time) to synthesize and innovate.
But that’s not me. My brain grew up in books, in one-thing-at-a-time. Granted, I was a very late adopter (I graduated from college in 2000 and refused to use the Internet to obtain my degree), but obviously now, in my professional life (as a fucking blogger), I’m asking my brain to bounce all over the place in search of tiny little pay-offs, scraps of information that, as the Times article discusses, will provide me with a small, addictive dopamine reward. Honestly, just trying to sit here and write what seems like an incredibly long blog post, I’ve repeatedly checked email, Twitter, RSS feeds, responded to instant messages and even looked at L Mag site analytics.
And I don’t think it’s making me very happy. I feel like a middle-distance runner trying to become a race-car driver late in life. Sure, I understand the argument that the Internet and technology are just another set of tools and that you can’t blame the tools for your own inability to control them, but jesus, we’re talking about the brain rewiring itself based on stimuli. So do you blame your own brain or do you blame the stimuli?
Shit. In absence of any grand conclusion here I will simply say we’re fucked, I have emails to send and this is the kicker from the aforementioned Times piece, from a scientist at Stanford:
The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other, it shows how much you care. We are at an inflection point: A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.