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The Sirens of Technology

How our gadgets are driving us nuts and why we need nature to keep us sane.

I love nature. I like high-tech. There, I’ve said it.

In 1982, I bought an IBM Displaywriter—a “word processor” as we called the first post-Selectric writing machines. The Displaywriter was the approximate size of a Chevy Vega and sounded like a garbage truck. As the years passed, I stayed on the leading edge of communications technology.

Now that I own three computers, a Kindle, an iPhone and an iPad, I just may have gone over the edge.

Understand, I recognize the benefits of technology, otherwise I wouldn’t be using the Internet or refrigerating my food. And the Internet has certainly been essential for building the children and nature movement.

But consider a few recent findings, reported here in the Twitter tradition of 140 characters, more or less:

• The Internet can be a real a downer. British psychologists have found a link between excessive Internet use and depression, or at least a warning sign of depression.

• When we use GPS, we can lose ourselves. New research suggests overuse of GPS devices may reduce our ability to develop “mental maps,” possibly by changing brain structure.

• Can high-tech make us big babies? An Oxford University neuroscientist warns social networking technology may be “infantilizing the brain into the state of small children …”

• Speaking of babies…The medical journal Pediatrics reports children who watch fast-paced cartoons perform worse when asked to follow rules or delay gratification. Some technology developed to enhance cognitive abilities of infants or adults may slow learning.

• Lucy, I’m home. Lucy? A UCLA study showed unrelenting electronic media use breaks down basic family communication, reducing traditional greetings to grunts.

• What were we talking about? The info-blitzkrieg has spawned a new field called “interruption science” and a newly minted condition: continuous partial attention. Constant electronic intrusions leave interrupted workers feeling frustrated, pressured and stressed, and less creative.

• The more sophisticated our tablets, the fewer books we’ll finish. One year ago, 46% of publishers considered iPads and similar tablets the ideal e-reading platform; that figure has fallen to 31%. People are realizing that a more powerful tablet “can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.”

That last statement is by New York Times reporters Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel, who give a pass to the now old-fashioned black-and-white Kindle because it lacks the full menu of Internet distractions.

I can relate. Lately, I’ve been reading (or at least finishing) fewer books and enjoying what I read less. When traveling, e-books are great, but I miss that satisfying feeling of settling into a good book, the feel of it in the hand, the spacial reality of it. That pleasure has been displaced by a queasy feeling that, even as I read an e-book, I’m being lured by the sirens of e-mail, by that weather app that shows the next storm rolling in.

To be fair, a list of bad side effects, like the warning labels on the packaging of pharmaceuticals, do not tell the full story. The point isn’t that technology is bad, but that daily, monthly, yearly, lifelong electronic immersion, without a force to balance it, can drain our ability to pay attention, to think clearly, to be productive and creative.

What to do? Match screen time with stream time. Research suggests that the best antidote to the downside of electronic immersion will be an increase in the amount of natural information we receive. And let’s go one step further: children and adults can develop “hybrid minds” by seeking the benefits of both virtual and natural reality.


Richard Louv

is the author of “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age,” which includes a chapter on the “hybrid mind,” and “LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” He is chairman emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.

Richard Louv

On April 16, he gave the keynote address at the first White House Summit on Environmental Education.

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