A recent article on salon.com attempted to sweep away legitimate criticisms of the downside of high-tech on human intelligence:
“By now the arguments are familiar: Facebook is ruining our social relationships; Google is making us dumber; texting is destroying the English language as we know it. We’re facing a crisis, one that could very well corrode the way humans have communicated since we first evolved from apes. What we need, so say these proud Luddites, is to turn our backs on technology and embrace not the keyboard, but the pencil.”
While “proud” is not an adjective I would ever use to modify “Luddite” I do believe that to sweep all criticism of the impact of technology into the closet (as if everything technology produces has a positive impact on human culture and intelligence) is behavior as atavistic as the writer accuses Luddites of displaying.
I’m a Google, Facebook, e-mail and Internet addict. While Twitter does strike me as largely a waste of time (unless you’re in the middle of a stolen Iranian election) I could fill tomes with the way the Internet and technology generally has enriched my life and the lives of everyone around me.
That does not, however, mean it is free from negative side effects and those of us who would like to explore them should not be dismissed as Luddites. In fairness to salon.com, the writer was reviewing a book by a linguistics professor whose book propounds the following, “Every communication advancement throughout human history, from the pencil to the typewriter to writing itself, has been met with fear, skepticism and a longing for the medium that’s been displaced.”
So the opening paragraph I quoted above was the writer’s distillation of the author’s apparent beliefs. That said, I would like to sing the praises of technology and then enumerate some of its greater dangers, which I believe strongly are worthy of study and clarification.
The Internet is a research resource of unimaginable proportions. It is a locator of long lost friends and relatives, and makes it much easier to stay in touch with loved ones and friends than anything or any service (e.g., USPS) that came before it.
On the negative side, I wonder what it is doing to the attention spans of young Americans who’ve grown up texting and Twittering each other. I was in the company earlier this week of a brain researcher who was lamenting his daughter’s constant use of e-mail, Twitter and texting, even while in her college library, supposedly studying. He said since he’s studied the brain, he knows she cannot possibly be absorbing the information she’s studying while multitasking as technology has allowed her to do. He fears unknowable consequences down the road for her.
Similarly, I spoke with an important federal research doctor months ago about the downside of the Internet. She said the worst effects are as yet unknown, as they stem from the proliferation of invisible wireless signals that now permeate our environment. We could see a rise in all manner of health complications (increases in certain types of cancer, impaired vision or hearing, etc.) and it could take researchers a long time to pinpoint the genesis. Every time I see someone walking the streets with a Wi-Fi receiver in his or her ear, I shudder to think of the possible consequences.
In my own case, I believe I have become hyperopic at a much faster rate than I would have, had I not spent as much time as I have staring at computer screens these past 15 years or so. I do believe reading the printed page in a well-lit environment puts much less strain on the eyes than does reading from a screen. I’ve spoken with digital video editors whose eyes sometimes start to vibrate after hours and hours of editing video material onscreen.
All of these are legitimate areas for research and should not be dismissed as the ravings of Luddites. If we dismiss them, we dismiss them at our own peril.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)