Technology is making us dumb. Or at least that’s the premise of a recent NYT story about “Your Brain on Computers.” Apparently, all of this exposure to computers and gadgets is “rewiring” our brains, making us less able to focus and engage in discreet tasks. According to the article, there’s all sorts of research to back this up.
There are two things worth keeping in mind, though. First, in his op-ed, “Mind Over Mass Media,” Steven Pinker does a nice job picking apart this idea that the brain can be “re-wired.” I’m not a neurologist, but it sound like it comes down to this: yes, the brain is dynamic, but there are limits to its plasticity. Instead of saying that Twitter, for instance, is “re-wiring” the brain to react to short bursts of information (as opposed to sustained engagement), it might be more proper to say that such emerging media technologies simply connect with other ways in which the brain has always operated. That is, maybe the brain is both a fast-twitch and slow-burn muscle, but there’s just more fast-twitch stuff for it to do these days. (For those of you who were in 708 last spring, this reminds me of Mark Kelly’s presentation on attention.)
The second point Pinker also alludes to, which is the moral panic underlying all this. The NYT story anecdotally blames technology for all sorts of ills — a potential lost contract, declining school grades, general disconnectedness. Nowhere is it acknowledged that these might have other causes, nor is there any questioning of the values lurking behind them.
I guess I’m just losing patience with deterministic arguments about technology, of both the “gadgets ate my brain” and “computers will save mankind” varieties. Yes, we’re changing, and technology is part of that. But we should be careful making claims about what causes what, and more clearheaded about what is being lost and gained in the process.
The impulse of teachers shouldn’t be to try to put the genie back in the bottle, but instead to prepare our students for the kind of world we’re creating.