Everywhere I go these days I feel like I’m bombarded with accusations that technology is destroying the fabric of society and rational thought.
I’ve had conversations with coworkers, friends, family, even my last date spent some time explaining to me how she believed that technology was eroding concentration and in turn causing children to spend less time reading, writing, playing outside, and using their imagination.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when pondering our imminent intellectual apocalypse brought about by technology.
First and foremost, technology allows us time to stop focusing on day-to-day survival. No one makes this concept more clear than Vaughn, the author of the post, “The Myth of the Concentration Oasis” (I strongly recommend reading this). To paraphrase, technology let’s us focus on things other than finding food, and raising children at all times. “The ‘modern technology is hurting our brain’ argument is widespread but it seems so short-sighted. It’s based on the idea that before digital communication technology came along, people spent their time focusing on single tasks for hours on end and were rarely distracted.”
If you think back to the history of the earliest humans, the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers was so important because it meant that certain people could focus on new tasks that didn’t involve basic survival. Farming meant that a smaller portion of a society could feed the larger group, thus allowing for the creation of new occupations. Technology allows us to build upon that basic principle (Seriously read Vaughn’s post, it is worth your time). If you think life would be easier without technology, try shedding all of it. See how easy your life becomes.
I was one of the people who thought that instant messengers and texting were hurting written language. I was a teaching assistant in a technical writing course in college and was frequently appalled at some of the writing that the students submitted. However, poor writing comes from a lack of caring or understanding of written language, not from technology. A recent study showed that texting doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on writing.
We also assume that everyone was intelligent in past generations. Think back to early America. Can you imagine people from that generation writing poorly? I couldn’t. I had no basis for the assumption, but I had just thought that people learned how to write properly. Then I read some of William Clark’s journal writings from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific coast. Meriwether Lewis could write well, but Clark was another story. I’m pretty sure he never spelled the work “mosquito” the same way twice.
We live in an age where endless knowledge is at our fingertips. If you are unsure of a fact, Google it, unless you are looking for something abstract or intangible, you will have an answer in seconds.
“But no one knows how to find things in a library?” You might be thinking.
To that, I ask you – “Who cares?”
Browsing a library is only an important skill if that is the only place you can find the information you seek. Since everything is digital (even library catalogs) the skill is essentially useless. Using a card catalog or a search engine are a means to an end or more often a means to other means. The act of finding the information is less significant than the information itself.
To look at this from a personal angle – I had a very hard time learning to read as a child. I loved to learn from an early age, but reading was so damn difficult that I didn’t do it unless I had to. For at least the first fourteen years of my life (probably longer) I spent far more time playing video games than reading or writing. I did well in school and if you looked at my grades in spite of this, but I didn’t really learn to write until I sat down and decided that I wanted to get better. I’m still learning, and always will.
Come to think of it, in recent months writing this blog has pushed me to develop my writing more than school or work. I guess this damn technology is doing something to my brain.