Christopher Ryan Ph.D.

Sex at Dawn

Is Technology Making Young People Stupid?

Is technology corroding the brains and social skills of kids?

Posted Dec 28, 2010

About a month ago, a friend sent me an article by Sandy Hingston, from Philadelphia magazine called, “Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid?”  The main point of the article will be familiar to anyone old enough to remember non-ironic disco and to not really know, or care, who Lady Gaga is: Kids these days!

But Hingston isn’t just griping; she’s concerned at what these technocreatures are missing in old-fashioned pleasure. Like the pleasure of reading The Great Gatsby, rather than watching the movie (while updating one’s Twitter account every twenty seconds, no doubt). I recommend you read the entire article, but this final paragraph will give you a sense of where she’s coming from:

In our rush to respond to the chime, the chirp, the bouncing icon, in our eagerness to prove ourselves multitaskers par excellence, in our willingness to sit alone at home and count our “friends,” ironically enough, we’re overlooking solitude’s real advantage: the opportunity it provides to develop what essayist Sven Birkerts describes in The Gutenberg Elegies as “our inwardness, our self-reflectiveness, our orientation to the unknown.” In other words: a soul.

And, of course, to bring that solitude-cultivated soul into play with other people.

I forwarded the article along to a few friends, including Thomas Finsterbusch, a young guy I met recently who seems to be a glaring counter-example to everything Hingston decries in her article. He’s very smart, thoughtful, reads books (including Sex at Dawn—smart dude!), knows how to interact with other human beings and, when we met for a beer a few weeks ago, didn’t look at his cell phone even once. But Thomas is no hippie Luddite. He’s fully plugged-in to the technological world Hingston fears is corroding the brains of America’s youth. He’s working on his Ph.D. in Computer Science, in fact.

Here’s Thomas’ response to the article, and my response to him (posted with his permission). If our dialogue continues, I’ll post further installments here. Meanwhile, let us know what you think about this. Is there something to worry about, or are the young-uns just being young-uns?



I hear what she's worried about, and I share a lot of the same concerns. However, one of the fundamental assumptions she's making is that a "real-life" connection or activity is inherently more worthwhile than a "virtual" one. At first blush I would agree: of course having beers with a buddy in a bar is richer than sending an SMS to a friend. But digging deeper, I struggle to really defend this hunch. A few thoughts:

* if you view the human brain as a pure input/output machinery, then is there a real distinction between light waves bouncing off a flying bird and light waves being emitted from an LED TV depicting that very same scene? Is one better or more real than the other?

* I have some issues with Kurzweil's writings, but his description of blending the human brain with computer technology will definitely happen, in my opinion. We're already using technology to enhance vision (glasses) and hearing (hearing aids), and it's not that much of a stretch that we'll be able to enhance our cognition as well. Yet I'm positive we'll see the usual Luddites who decry the ability to instantaneously upload new knowledge (say, the Spanish language or the complete chronology of WWII) and instead insist that it's much more "natural", thus better, to do it the old-fashioned way: repeating things over and over again until it finally sticks in your brain. Never mind that this is horribly inefficient.

* people seem to confuse genuineness with amount of effort expended. Is my email any less valuable than a hand-written letter, just because it's not written with ink on tree pulp and arrives in less than a second? By that logic, the most sincere and worthwhile form of expressing yourself is to chisel your message into a tablet of rock.

* regarding the short attention spans: I've never been more deeply concentrated on a single activity than during intense 10 hour computer gaming sessions when I was a teenager.

But the article's "our next generation is a mess, we're all doomed" vibe also reminds me of this quote:

"Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers."

- Socrates, 400 BC




So in defending the corruption of today’s youth, you quote Socrates, who was condemned to death for corrupting the youth of his day? Talk about a sympathetic witness!

Seriously, you raise some fascinating issues here (which is why I’m milking it for a blog post). In fact, I suspect Socrates will come back to bite you on this one, as Plato's parable of the cave (in which Socrates plays a major role) is probably the best expression of the role of technology in the lives of many young people today. Quoting Wikipedia:

Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not constitutive of reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

The distinction between “light waves being emitted from an LED TV” depicting a bird in flight and an actual bird in flight seems to be like that between shadows on a wall and reality. One is a depiction of reality while the other is “real” and exists whether or not it is perceived by the input/output machinery of the brain.

Of course, this requires me to say what I mean by “reality.” 

I think it was William Gibson who said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t disappear.” To paraphrase, Reality is that which doesn’t cease to exist if the lights go out. A bird in the bush, in other words, is worth a whole flock of them on TV.

While I admire the audacity leading you to question whether there’s really any qualitative difference between a depiction of something and the thing itself, I’m gonna have to go with reality on this one. After all, in theory, at least, you could throw a rock at a bird in flight and end up with dinner. If you do the same with your “bird,” you’ll just end up with a broken TV. Even when the placebo works, it's still a placebo.

* I’m with you on uploading languages. The sooner, the better. As you say, we’re already using technology to enhance our bodies in many ways, ranging from hearing aids to breast implants to knee replacements. Why not implant a language? Just last week, I saw that there’s already something along these lines for the iPhone: the Word Lens

* You ask, “Is my email any less valuable than a hand-written letter, just because it's not written with ink on tree pulp and arrives in less than a second? By that logic, the most sincere and worthwhile form of expressing yourself is to chisel your message into a tablet of rock.”

Yes, I think emails are inherently less valuable that the same message written on paper, although I can’t help feeling I’m on less solid ground here. (And there’s a reason tombstones are made of granite.) For me, it’s partly a function of the time required. I can tell you, when it took me an hour to write a letter and then go stand in the post office to send it off, I wrote far fewer letters than I do emails today. I’m not saying life was better, necessarily, but that I paid more attention to each letter and was more selective about who I wrote to. It would be meaningless for me to go back to writing paper-and-envelope letters now because the world has changed and my refusal to accommodate those changes would have no effect.

Similarly, I often think about the first time I went to India in the late ‘80s. I took a portable short-wave radio with me, so I could tune into the BBC or Voice of America at night and hear some news from my side of the world. Once a month or so, I’d go to a call center at the post office of a big city and try to reserve a line to call my parents in America. It took hours and the connection was horrible, but for better or worse, it made me feel very far away. Now, I go to India and take my laptop and/or iPhone and I’m in constant contact with whomever, wherever, whenever ... whatever.

My point isn’t just that my experience has changed. After all, I could take a steamship to India (theoretically) and leave my computer at home. But India has changed radically in the twenty years since I first visited, so my choosing to engage with it in some old-fashioned way won't change my experience of the place.

* At 48, I’ve felt the erosion of my own attention span as I’ve become more and more plugged into the shadows on the cave wall. If I’m not careful, I spend so much time tending my little Facebook and Twitter gardens, keeping up with my RSS feeds, and trying to respond to emails, that I don’t “do” anything at all! I sometimes find myself semi-consciously wishing I could fast-forward through the less fascinating parts of life, the way I automatically look for the instant-replay when I’m watching live sports in the stadium—only to be reminded, disappointingly, that real life offers no instant-replay.

Nicholas Carr put it well in his recent piece in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid?:

[Media] supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I can't help feeling that the more I fast-forward through my life, the shorter it becomes. I've gone through this acceleration in my 30s and 40s. I wonder how short life must be for people born into this rushing stream. I wonder about why depression is the malady of our age, why suicide rates keep climbing, why life itself seems to be too much trouble for more and more young people. The shadows on the wall may seem like real life, but they don't nourish, and leave too many of us empty and hopeless.



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