Image by aranarth via FlickrLast summer, The Atlantic Monthly featured a cover story titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The article, written by Nicholas Karr, suggests that we have become jittery and superficial readers. Karr cites recent scholarship from University College London suggesting that visitors to their research site skim rather than read, hopping from one source to another rarely returning to any source they’ve already visited. Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts warns that the style of reading promoted by the Net may be weakening our capacity for deep reading, turning us into “mere decoders of information.”
Rather predictably, this summer featured a reaction piece called "Get Smarter" that wonders "if Google is making us smarter"! The author Jamais Cascio, citing contradictory studies, concludes that computers aid our "fluid intelligence" and that computers help us with "the modern phenomenon of having multiple activities and connections under way simultaneously." One theorist even calls our current life style "a [self-] induced form of ADD."
So, who is right? In my opinion, neither of these schools. Both make the mistake of seeing computers as the principal actors and the human beings who use them hapless and passive victims of the cyber-revolution. There seems to be a trend these days to capitulate to technology as if it is the answer to our problems rather than the means to achieve the answers we seek.
On a more local level, I attended a conference last year in which a "computer expert" expressed the desire to equip every student with technological literacy upon graduation. A noble goal, to be sure, but, when I asked how this would be achieved he said, by putting a computer into every student's hands. Vigorous head-shaking and self-congratulation ensued, which ended when I asked if a computer was really the same thing as technology. Suddenly I felt quite alone, a kill-joy, a virtual party pooper, by pulling the plug on the enthusiasm that had been brewing.
But a computer is not the same thing as technology, just as certainly as flint is not the same thing as fire. (If you don't believe me, ask my scout master!). How are computers affecting your life -- or more to the point, how are you using computers to affect your life?