Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hooked on the Net

A history teacher on the Frontline documentary “Digital Nation” put the problem succinctly: “these kids (his high school students) are natives in this world; we (pre-computer types) are immigrants.” That’s more or less the way I feel. The computer is essentially a typewriter to me. The internet helps in the way a library used to: it provides a quick source for necessary facts, but it is not the place where I live. For the internet generation, however—the one that has been using computers since almost birth—it is where they live. And more and more of them cannot imagine a world without that constant connection. Either via iPhones or laptops or game consoles or iPods or all and more at the same time, the internet generation now in schools like your neighborhood grammar school or high school or MIT is constantly connected, multitasking at all hours of the day and night, including when they’re in class, eating with friends, or studying at home or in the library. They’re googling, chatting, texting, posting on Facebook or Twitter, indulging in their online second life, listening to their playlists, and doing their homework all at the same time.
            There have been many warnings about this, and about what the constant distraction might be doing not only to the competence, but to the brains of these kids. But there are also those who pooh-pooh the warnings and insist that the world in which the current generation will have to function requires them to be adept at multiple tasks and “problem-solving” rather than the old style of memorizing facts and dates. Still, a segment with a teenager in South Korea, where the government has actually had to step in and institute a program to teach children how not to misuse the internet, is sobering. One teen named Kim got so addicted to constant computer gaming that his mother sent him to one of the Internet Rescue Camps where teen internet addicts learn to do outdoors-y things with their peers—like actually communicating in person. Kim wasn’t so sanguine about the camp, though. He said he was obsessing about computer gaming constantly, and couldn’t wait to get home so he could get back online. Others have not been so lucky: several teens actually died after spending 50 hours constantly gaming without a break for either food or water.
            Neuroscientists have begun to seriously investigate what all this constant screen-interaction (average kids spend over 50 hours a week on digital media while real devotees—i.e. addicts—spend considerably more) is doing to youthful brains. Where most young people are certain that their multitasking is very efficient, Prof. Clifford Nass at Stanford had doubts even before his research: “a great deal of research has already shown us that the brain can only attend to one thing at a time,” Nass said. His subsequent research on the efficiency of multitaskers (these were young college kids who regularly work on five or six things at once) showed that, contrary to their own assessment that they were efficient multitaskers, most were significantly slower at simple tasks than normal, and basically terrible at every aspect of multitasking. Nass concluded by saying, “We worry that this may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.” Another research project, by Dr. Gary Small of UCLA, gave a more graphic picture—neuroimages of some brains reading, compared to other brains doing google searches. At first the results seemed comforting: the brains of those “googling” showed about twice as much brain activity as those reading a book, thus prompting initial news reports that net surfing is good for the brain, and makes us smarter. But Dr. Small cautioned that in brain imaging, “bigger is not necessarily better.” In fact, Dr. Small pointed out, one could well argue that smaller is better, because, as with a well-trained athlete, the fit body needs to use less energy to do a given physical task than the unfit one. The same applies to brains: reading a book, for a good reader, requires less brain effort to get information (and even pleasure and relaxation).
            Being a book man, of course, I would agree. Reading a book is far easier on the eyes, and far more cozy than staring at a screen all day jumping from one graphic stimulant to another. But those who have been reared on computers do not agree; they’re bored with books. Said one high school student named Greg: “I never read books. If there were 27 hours in a day, I’d read Hamlet maybe. But there aren’t.” Greg, therefore, like most of his peers, gets his “information” about a play like Romeo and Juliet from the internet sites that, in a few paragraphs, provide him with the plot and all he needs for a test. Other sites provide pre-written essays on any aspect of any literary work. That leaves students ample time for all the other joys of the net like Facebooking and texting and gaming. Prof. Mark Bauerlein, of Emory University, has written about such kids and their generation—in a book he titles The Dumbest Generation. He refers to a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education referring to them as ‘the new bibliophobes.’ What the study found was that while use of the internet can raise reading skills in the early grades, as students get more wired, their reading and thinking skills deteriorate. As Professor Bauerlein noted, their writing skills are equally atrocious. Most of his colleagues, he said, agree, noting that less than 10% of students come to college actually prepared to write, and/or think. The aforementioned Professor Nass, of Stanford, was more specific: “Instead of writing an essay, they write paragraphs. They’re good for one or two paragraphs. Then they’re distracted and onto Facebook or some other online destination.” The result, he said, is that there are no connections between paragraphs, no sense of the big picture. Several students actually admitted that this was true of their own writing and the way they go about it.
            Of course, there are always the apologists: a principal of a public school in the Bronx claimed to have turned his school around by equipping every student with a laptop, insisting that this is what these kids will need when they enter the ‘real world.’ An even grander apologist was Mark Trensky, CEO of a digital company called “Games2Train.” He opined that he didn’t at all agree that the book “is the best way to train people for the 21st century,” adding that alarmists also cried havoc when print first replaced memorized epics and when mechanical printing first made books available to the masses.
            Perhaps. Perhaps the digital way of the internet really is opening the world to a more democratic, better-informed, more equitable society of instantly-linked brains. But some cautions might be in order here as well. One commenter on the frontline blog had this to say:

            Facebook and the internet in general, a potentially momentous tool for pushing society forwards, seems to actually be limiting activism. As my peers noted, its easy to browse Facebook, find a cause, and join a group, and simply state that you support the fight against cancer, or say that America should not go to war. These groups could be a potential starting point for activism, mobilizing and connecting people with common values and causes, but from what I've seen, usually nothing moves beyond simply joining a group.

            A more deeply-thought out criticism comes from Joshua Sperber on, in a piece called “We’re All Porn-stars Now.” What Sperber suggests is that the internet has actually co-opted all of us, getting us to internalize the ethics and behaviors of our capitalist masters. This results in profits for those who own the sites and tools that we love—Google and Facebook and even online dating sites—by entrapping us into furnishing the information about ourselves which allows them to sell advertising. This is, of course, why all those “free” sites elicit our information—to provide the means for advertising to be targeted at specific audiences likely to succumb to their appeal. And of course, thousands of sites are direct peddlers of every kind of product from foods to clothes to porn to willing dates ready to provide all of what we desire. Sperber notes, in fact, that dating sites have recently become more profitable than porn sites…This effectively means that people who post pictures on dating sites, or engage in amateur porn, are “giving it away for free.” More accurately, given their extraction of profit through user input and advertisements, as well as the fees that many sites charge, online dating sites establish a relationship of reverse prostitution. Notwithstanding their offer of “efficiency” (which makes their promise of “romance” oxymoronic) and exhibitionism, the material basis of the relationship is that you pay to work for them.
It’s hilarious, really. The internet was supposed to be the essence of “freedom.” Information free, entertainment free, social networking free, the whole world connected in this free, open flow of human togetherness and sharing and learning. And yet, according to Sperber’s account of it, we’ve all become colluders with the money-makers and hucksters, as when we go on Yelp and criticize the service at a restaurant, thus placing the blame for a bad experience on the poor waiter or waitress, while the employer who pays that person a minimum wage gets off scot free. And by “marketing” ourselves online—on Facebook or Linked-In or even Craigslist—we are unknowingly making ourselves into the very thing we say we deplore: commodities. Here’s how Sperber puts it:
..we attempt to make money marketing ourselves online not merely as laborers but as aspiring capitalists, trying to extract surplus value from any conceivable trade, skill, or gimmick. Selling one’s personality, purpose, and essence, the division of labor has been seemingly resolved online: we own the (would be) means of production, which actually means that we have become utterly commodified.
In short, we don’t have the Internet. The Internet has us, and it’s virtually impossible these days to get away. We’re hooked, cooked, and addicted to our own beloved technology. As my father used to say, “What a revolting development this is.”
(Postcript: since writing this on June 20, my internet connection has failed. After nearly an hour talking to an ATT rep, I was told my modem is kaput and no longer able to make the connection to online consciousness. So I’m waiting, bereft of my connection, for a new modem to be shipped by UPS overnight, the whole thing to cost me nearly $100 and a couple of days inability to function as I’ve been brainwashed to expect. Not sure whether this is the revenge of the Internet Gods re: the above critique, but one way or the other, they really have us by the short hairs.)
(PPS: It’s Saturday and I’ve just gotten back online. Should anyone be surprised that, in fact, there was nothing wrong with my modem—I learned this after finally getting the new one working—but rather with some connection prior to the modem fixed by ATT repair. Aarrggh!)
Lawrence DiStasi

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