Technology or Culture?

The latest installment of the New York Times “Your Brain on Computers” series popped up this morning several times on Twitter and the most-emailed list, and I read it with interest…but find myself somewhat unconvinced that big, bad technology is eroding our attention spans and killing our memory.

To me, technology is tool, but how we use that tool and therefore how it affects us has a lot more to do with our culture and what we value. I think what is doing the psychic damage may have more to do with the powerful value Western society places on doing not being, narrow categories of what counts as “acceptable” achievement, and equating always being busy with being “successful.” Devices can be used in myriad ways, including for creative, artistic, or adventurous purposes, and not all have to do with the harried need to respond to an email immediately.

I’m not saying that technology has no affect on us at all or that there isn’t some chicken-and-egg going on here – our gadgets may in some respects influence what we value. I just went to Rocky Mountain National Park last week and was deeply struck by how the scenery and being unplugged got me out of my own head for once.  But what bugs me about stories like these. that are so common of late, is that they seem to treat the issue in simplistic and black-and-white ways in which technology is either villain or hero, without really probing deeper questions of what we value and why. Undoubtedly, the neuroscientists featured in the piece can tell us a lot about the how the brain is affected by our gadgets, but it’s important to note that the answers they get will depend on the kinds of questions they ask and their assumptions.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Technology or Culture?

  1. …technology is eroding our attention spans and killing our memory.

    I’m not an expert on the subject, but here are my thoughts:

    Have you ever thumbed through a magazine – kind of just skimmed the headlines, perhaps read a few lines of the opening paragraph of each story and before you know it you were done with the magazine? Not only are people doing this with Websites and video content, they’ve also started to do this with people they interact with on a daily basis. Within seconds, people make a decision as to if something is worth their time or not and tuning out something they think is not worth their time. I believe that this “conditioning” comes from people’s increase use of the Internet, irrespective of culture and values. Not everyone is affected by the Internet in this manner, but I definitely see it happening to some people.

    Before the Internet, people were more of a captive audience to “content.” There weren’t as many content choices as there are today. The same can be said of cable TV.

    I don’t think we’ll fully understand the long term effects of technology for another 20-30 years after the current generation of kids who have grown up on technology have kids of their own.

  2. changingnewsroom

    Interesting thoughts, thanks.

    I just think that sometimes we are too quick to see technology itself as the problem rather than how we use it and how we think about it, but it’s not an either/or – clearly television played a big role in how we consume content and how we interact with each other, and now we are seeing yet another shift.

    And if we are working from anecdotes – on the one hand, yes, maybe I find myself skimming more and making quick judgments about what is worth my time. But I’m also interacting in real life with professional contacts I’ve met online that I never would have been able to before, and having all kinds of rich conversations that expand my perspective, so I could also argue that my interactions with others have become richer and in fact more meaningful aspects of how I spend my time.

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