Out in Front: Tech and Techer

February 1, 2011  - By

Can the development and use of smart technologies actually render us dumber? Have we already lost a mental step or two, as we equip ourselves fearlessly for the future?

Marshall McLuhan, the “medium is the message” guy from back when, preached that tools numb whatever part of the body they amplify. By extrapolation, location-enabling tools render us less aware of our actual place.

It causes me some discomfort to float this topic in the standard bearer for an extremely advanced high-tech industry. Yet I also felt acute and nearly continuous discomfort while reading a book over the winter holidays; a poke here, a prick there, until I was sitting on pins and needles. I had selected the volume with an eye to finding out why my adult and near-adult children, actively engaged online, have little patience with the printed page anymore, and find books practically abhorrent.

Of course, every generation has its preferences, but this trend troubles me because it seems associated with a reluctance to truly explore, to think critically, at length, and in some depth. Also, it’s not limited to twentysomethings. I find plenty of affected folks at every age.

booksThe book is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. It provided grist galore in the online/print dichotomy — the changes in how we look for, absorb, process, and store information. And as said, it generated no little discomfort as I realized how much I, too, have changed in a decade and a half of increasing online activity, at work and in leisure.

I began to wonder, as I read, where that other game-changing modern technology, global satellite navigation, enters the picture. Sure enough, it surfaced on page 212.

A neuroscientist engaged in studying the brains of London taxi drivers found that their hippocampal area increased in gray matter volume because of the huge amount of street names and traffic-flow data they must memorize. She worries that when cabbies use GPS, that knowledge base will shrink, and possibly that area of the brain will atrophy or fail to develop.

This is perhaps a trivial example that has little to do with you and me. But consider your experience and your awareness as you follow, head down, your PND or a cell-phone screen to your next destination. Do you register the environment en route, possibly including hazard factors? Do you notice other points of interest that might enrich your experience, occasion a stop, detour, or return trip — or even constitute a better destination? Once arrived, could you find your own way there again, or have you become dependent on silicon and signals?

GNSS brings undeniable benefits in areas where it creates capabilities that did not exist before, such as measuring millimetric sway of tall buildings or changes in sea level; that is, largely in professional areas. But where it offers convenience or shortcuts in everyday life, that can be a more double-edged sword. The Internet has proved so; recall also canned, frozen, and processed pre-prepared foods, once embraced as modern timesavers. We now find they stripped essential nutrients out of our diet, undermining health and helping create an obesity epidemic.

In some savage ironic twist, particularly since Carr has plenty to say about how Google contributes to the general online process of mental debilitation, the full 276-page text of The Shallows is currently available via Google Books.

This article is tagged with , , and posted in From the Magazine, Opinions

About the Author:

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.

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