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.