The Net and your Brain

Many thinkers have argued that technology is not neutral, that it is, in fact, “value-laden”. Neil Postman, author of Technopoly and other books, has argued that the designers of technology embed their personal or corporate values into technical artifacts. As a result, technological objects are biased towards certain uses, which in turn biases a user to use them in a particular way. This leads me to wonder what values are embedded into our digital tools and how they bias the way we work and interact.

But it appears that technology not only changes things, it may also change our brains. In his recent book iBrain: Surviving the Technical Alteration of the Modern Mind, a leading neuro-scientist named Gary Small has explored how the web and modern digital media are changing the structure of our brains. Although it seems that multi-tasking and web surfing can accelerate learning, it may also lead to attention deficit disorder, Internet addictions, and social isolation. He writes that the digital revolution has “plunged us into a continuous state of partial attention” and in this state people “no longer have time to reflect, contemplate, or make thoughtful decisions.” Instead, we are driven to distraction.

These changes have a particular impact on the development of younger “digital natives” who have been exposed to digital culture since childhood. Younger people have more malleable brains which are shaped and molded in part by the digital environment in which many of them are immersed. According to Small, brains can adapt to more rapid-fire cyber surfing, but overexposure to online activities can also cause the pathways for human interaction to atrophy. In November 2008, Macleans Magazine had an article entitled “”Dumbed Down: The Troubling Science of How Technology is Rewiring Kids’ Brains” which highlighted this same issue.

In another article entitled “Is Google Making us Stupid?”, author Nicholas Carr laments that that the Net has diminished his capacity for concentration and his ability to read long books. He states: “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.” Deep reading has given way to “skimming” as users click through hyperlinks and bounce from site to site.

Small claims that this unrelenting bombardment of data can lead to a type of “brain strain” that leaves people feeling as if they are in a “digital fog”. Some of the suggestions from Small to avoid “techno-brain burnout” include the need to set limits and to balance on-line and off-line time.

It seems that as we discover more about the creational laws of computing and our technologies advance we also need to discern more about computing “norms”. What are appropriate and normative ways to use, limit, and balance the use of computer technology?

Last fall, Redeemer University College students were encouraged to commit to an “e-fast” during which they were asked to give up or limit one of there digital activities (such as video games, social networking, e-mailing, instant messaging etc.) for one week. Many students (and professors – including this one) discovered how challenging this simple challenge turned out to be. At the end of the week, one student shared during a chapel time how her “e-fast” led to wonderful changes in her personal devotional life.

We need to discern that there is a need for boundaries and limits in our use of our digital tools, and that real face-to-face communication is an important part of being human. And perhaps in a bustling digital world that clamors for our continuous partial attention, we need to re-learn how to take time for reflection and devotions. As in the story of Mary and Martha, many of us need to strive to set aside our many digital distractions to take time to sit at the Master’s feet and listen.

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