By: Michael Hryniuk
May 09, 2011
I’m not exactly sure when I began to notice it. It began when I started to feel slightly overwhelmed by the demands of replying to all my email. Then there was a peculiar dizziness I started to experience after spending too many hours surfing web sites on the net. I think the tipping point wasn’t actually net related. I think it was in 1997 that I first began to fully realize the negative impact of digital culture on my daily life.
One day, I stepped off the plane in Minneapolis airport to catch another flight and found myself sitting in a departure lounge waiting for the next boarding call. A gentleman near me suddenly started talking to someone I couldn’t see. He was holding a conversation with no one. I looked but he wasn’t even holding one of those new, nifty palm-sized mobile phones. Who was he talking to then? I looked around embarrassed and thought that the poor man must be delirious after a red-eye flight from San Francisco and just needed to lie down somewhere and collect himself. The conversation continued. I began to stare and finally noticed a strange blue light flashing on what appeared to be a hearing aid in his ear but the device had a long cord I’d never seen before. I had just been introduced to Bluetooth technology.
At that moment, I began to feel a strange shock and dread coming over me. There was something weird going on. In the past, I might have struck up a friendly conversation with a stranger in such circumstances. But now I sat in stupefied silence across from him as he talked merrily into space with some other being, perhaps thousands of miles away. On the one hand, I marveled at the technology. On the other, I felt strangely uncomfortable and disoriented. When I arrived in Atlanta airport a few hours later, the sense of disconnect, even absurdity, began to grow. Why? Because I was now actually surrounded by dozens of people walking around me, talking into space to no one I could actually see. They were there but, somehow, no longer there. I felt surrounded by talking zombies.
Fast forward fourteen years. We are now into conditions that have been described as “message overload.” If I am having difficulty connecting with you via BBM, SMS, Gmail chat, Facebook, Skype, Linkedin, Twitter, email, and old fashioned cellular phone, you can now download LiveProfile – a new instant messaging app for Blackberry users that allows you to host multiple conversations simultaneously on your “Smartphone.”
We are now welcoming the first truly digital natives into their first year of college: the children born in 1993 or later who have lived their entire lives growing up wired to the internet and other digital media.
Studies are now being published that strongly suggest that the digital technology may not be entirely healthy for the minds, bodies or souls of its users, especially young adults. The excitement over the potential of this technology for new forms of learning, connectivity, and community is now being tempered by empirical studies that document the tangible losses incurred with digital media saturation.
In a review of two dozen studies about the impact of different media technologies on our cognitive abilities, reported in Science magazine in 2009, developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield noted that the rapid shift of focus in multitasking did improve facility at some tasks requiring the ability to keep track of lots of simultaneous signals and multiple inputs – almost like air traffic controllers handling several targets on their radar screens. Unfortunately, multitasking actually weakened “higher order cognitive processes” – significant functions like developing “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” All that stuff just takes too much time and energy.