Baroness Susan Greenfield (2009) is perhaps one of the world’s strongest advocates for paying attention to what technology might be doing to the human brain. She cites research conducted at Harvard Medical School that proves the malleability of the brain, and suggests that if simple experiments can result in changes to the brain, what might be happening to your children who are immersed in technology. In the Harvard research a group of adult volunteers, none of whom could previously play the piano, were split into three groups.
The first group was taken into a room with a piano and given intensive piano practice for five days. The second group was taken into an identical room with an identical piano but had nothing to do with the instrument at all. And the third group was taken into an identical room with an identical piano and was then told that for the next five days they had to just imagine they were practicing piano exercises. The resultant brain scan showed, not surprisingly, the brains of those who simply sat in the same room as the piano hadn’t changed at all; and those who performed the piano exercises showed marked structural changes in the area of the brain associated with finger movement. What astonished researchers, however was that the group which had merely imagined doing the piano exercises showed changes in the brain structure that were almost as pronounced as those that had actually had lessons.
Baroness Greenfield’s point here is that if something as innocuous as imagining a piano lesson can bring about a visible physical change in brain structure, and therefore some presumably minor change in the way the aspiring player performs, what changes might long stints playing violent computer games bring about? She argues that attention spans are shorter, personal communication skills are reduced and there is marked reduction in the ability to think abstractly as a result of time spent using technology. She also suggests there is circumstantial evidence that links a sharp rise in diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and the associated three-fold increase in Ritalin prescriptions over the past ten years with the boom in computer games.
Her point is not that technology is all bad but that in increasing our understanding of the human brain’s tremendous plasticity and making sure we are not oblivious to the dangers of excessive technology use, we can harness it to increase creativity and individuality.
A final comment on how people are affected by the overwhelming volume of information made accessible by technology is based on the very system which makes the information available. Google, the world’s largest search engine, declares its mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers” (Carr, 2007). In fact, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google asserts, “certainly if you had the entire world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off”
Carr argues this is an “easy assumption”, which perhaps reinforces earlier comments about the inability of those steeped in technology to think ahead to the future. It suggests, Carr says, “a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.
The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed-data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web – the more links we click and pages we view – the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link – the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.”
Carr believes that if we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content”, we will sacrifice something important not only in ourselves but in our culture.
Some of the criticisms we make about how young people learn have not changed over decades; the difference is that now we blame technology for problems young people have always had.