Rewired, not fade away

A lot of nonsense is still being talked about how technology is damaging our lives, and how the Internet is 'rewiring our brains'. From Nicholas Carr's dystopian scaremongering in The Shallows, to Andrew Keen's bitter rhetoric in Cult of the Amateur, the literature is replete with those who wish to persuade us to repent from our reliance on technology and put on our analogue sackcloth and ashes. There is a never ending supply of doom merchants who are ready to emerge from the shadows into the literary spotlight to peddle their bad news, and once they have done so, exeunt stage left with a nice royalty paycheck.

Their arguments are diverse, but essentially boil down to this: The way technology is currently being used is dangerous because it dumbs down knowledge, trivialises relationships, and ultimately, over a period of time, turns us into its slaves. A recent article in the Telegraph asks 'Is the digital age rewiring us?' The article then goes on to cite a range of scientific studies that support an affirmative answer to the question.  It lists a litany of negative outcomes of our habituated use and reliance on the Web, including a loss of social contact, computer addiction, memory deterioration, loss of empathy, increase in rudeness, loss of privacy, and the introduction of a new word - cyberchondria - which describes a rise in hyperchondriac incidence in GP surgeries, and a supposed link to greater access to information about health issues. There is very little of a positive nature in the article, and with the exception of reports that technology 'can keep us sharper for longer' and that video games can teach us new skills (strange that, when elsewhere it claims that our skills are being blunted), one would come away with the impression that we are all doomed, and that technology is the ultimate nemesis of all humanity.

Let's stop one moment and rationally examine the evidence, and also the premise behind the article. The author makes his first mistake right at the start of the piece when he distinguishes between digital natives and immigrants. This is contentious, not least because there has never been anything other than anecdotal evidence to suggest that older people and younger people perceive, or use technology any differently. Marc Prensky's digital natives theory has been misappropriated anyway. Moreover, there are much more relevant and appropriate theories that describe this generation's use of technology, and even Prensky's revised and updated theory of digital wisdom would be better applied, as would Le Cornu and White's theory around context - digital residents and visitors.

One of the biggest and most persistent claims of the Telegraph article is that technology is rewiring our brains. Several neurological studies are cited (but conveniently with no directly checkable sources) that suggest technology permanently alters the structure of the brain, and in so doing changes our behaviour more or less permanently. All well and good, but there is a fundamental flaw in this argument. Read farther afield than the narrow chain of references in the article and you will discover that just about everything we do - drinking, eating, arguing, reading, sex, playing sport, driving, hobbies, also alters the wiring of the brain. In the world of education we call this 'learning', and it stands to reason that using technology will also rewire the brain. The scientific terms for this is neuroplasticity, meaning the brain is in a constant state of fluid change. It has even been reported to occur after brain damage where the brain then 'heals itself' by rewiring previously damaged areas (See for example this article by Dancause et al, 2005). This is not a new finding, so we must be very careful that we don't fall into the trap of condemning technology as the only culprit, and laying all of the ills of society upon it when in fact life is far more complex than one single causal factor. You can see why I'm very suspicious when pseudo-scientists use very narrow terms of reference to argue their points.  

What about the argument that this generation is 'hooked on the web'? Just like the previous generation was hooked on drugs? Or the generation before that was hooked on Rock and Roll? It is a great error to assume that technology is addictive or has the power to addict. Any addiction, as many psychiatrists will agree, has its explanation more in the personality of the individual than it is to any inherent quality of the substance or item they are interacting with. Read, for example, this piece by Mason (2009) on the addictive personality, and you will see that such seemingly clear cut arguments are in reality far from straightforward. Consider instead that people who are addicted to Facebook might be addicted because they have chosen to use Facebook excessively, not because Facebook is inherently addictive?

Finally, we should all be highly sceptical of any article that generalises to such an extent as the Telegraph article has. Not everyone who answers their mobile whilst in a conversation is 'anti-social', not every young person prefers to txt their friends rather than meet with them personally, and not everyone relies on their mobile phones to recall their telephone numbers for them. And even those who do these things - does this mean they are lesser people as a result? Or are these simply the signs of a new, emerging cultural norm? Did those running the 'cyberchondria' study actually consider that instead of negatively and pejoratively labelling people who are concerned over their health as 'hyperchondriacs', perhaps they should be applauding them for becoming more proactive and aware of health issues in general? That's what tools such as Wikipedia do, you see. They democratise knowledge.

My final thought: An important rule of research is - don't make assumptions, or in other words don't be biased. If you are, you'll become very selective in the data you use, and end up with conclusions that don't bear any resemblance to reality.

As ever, I welcome your comments.

Photo by Tom Swift

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Rewired, not fade away by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Simon Ensor said…
In defence of the Telegraph.
In the 1850's the telegraph was cool tech, railways were booming, the middle classes were aspiring. The Empire stood for something. Communication was global, naval, colonial.

The writing is on the wall, Britain is doomed. Global villages were supposed to stay where they were.

Daily newspapers are struggling to push paper. A quick Google of Telegraph and addiction will reveal that horror stories about the young and their latest dependency are their staple stock. Is there any saving the hard-wired Telegraph reader from the shock of the new?

I fear not.

Telegraph reading is engraved in their unthinking DNA.

Judy Lundy said…
Thanks for coherently debunking these myths. As a baby boomer, I am glad my mind continues to be rewired with the assistance of new technology thus helping me to stretch, learn and grow. The alternative is not worth thinking about!
Steve Wheeler said…
I take it from that Simon, that you believe tabloids tend toward the sensational and controversial? Well, fancy that... ;)
Steve Wheeler said…
A pleasure, Judy I just say it like I see it :)
Simon Ensor said…
Are you serious Steve? Surely the Telegraph is a serious broadsheet...erhum tabloid.
The neural rewiring canard has done the rounds. Marc Prensky uses it, George Siemens in his essay on Connectivism uses it, and it's been touted by Susan Greenfield, and, as you mention, Nicholas Carr.

And it looks like there's not a single shred of evidence to indicate it's the case.

Let's look at Prensky ( who Siemens uses as a source). He quotes a Dr. Bruce D. Perry of Baylor College of Medicine, "Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures" to support his assertion that "it is very likely our students brains have physically changed -and are different from ours - as a result of how they grew up"

The lack of citation is interesting, and here's why.

Dr Perry is probably talking about the effect of massive childhood trauma on brain development - things along the order of suffering increbibly violent assault, witnessing brutal murders, abuse, and brutal and terrible events of that order.I say probably, as there's no citation, and I can't track the exact quote down. But childhood trauma of this type, and resulting developmental issues are his area. Prensky's lack of citation here is...I'm not sure I have the words. Disingenuous and sloppy don't begin to cover it I feel. Using this as a basis for a digital native dichotomy is inexcusable. Allowing it to become something of a meme is, I think, reprehensible.

Regarding the general claim of altered brain structure among the youth, there seems to be little evidence.

There is some evidence (this appears to be the 2011 Science article referenced in the Telegraph, though it's not possible to be certain, needless to say it's pore complex, nuanced, and positive than the Telegraph present it) that our use of technology is leading us to a situation where we are storing the memory of where to find information, rather than the information itself, when we think that the information will remain stored there (we remember where, not what) and that computer use is leading users to become slightly faster at some types of task. For example, if I write a phone number down, I forget it, but if I need to remember it, I will. It's a well documented phenomenon where individuals who believe information has been recorded are more likely to forget the information ( and yet writing, the Printing Press, extended literacy, and availability of writing materials have not yet reduced us to imbecility as a species) and yet are able to remember where to find it. Computers, and the internet are considered reliable recorders, and ones which we expect to have access to. The authors attribute this to "the same type of transactive memory processes that underlie social information sharing in general".

This distributed storage is, essentially, the same way we store the memory of who to ask a particular question of as they will know the answer, or what chapter of a book to refer to, or which set of notes we wrote down contains the lecture we need, or where in a broadsheet newspaper we can look for articles that have bad science and unsupported claims.We've been doing it for the millenia.

The medium we retain the memory of has changed, but not the mechanism.

Aleks Krotoski has a short article on it as part of her untangling the web series here , and she also covers it in the Digital Human Radio 4 series.

There's some evidence ( online survey of one uni with circa 346 respondents) that students are choosing paper over e textbooks, partially because they believe they study for longer, and in greater depth, without device distractions, and due to less fatigue -'t%20give%20up%20Paper%20Textbooks.pdf

This is interesting, as it indoicates that so called digital natives may express preferences for old school tools, on the basis of their non connectedness, non hypertextuality, and becasue of a self aware desire for depth and breadth of study.

Assertions about neurophysiology without evidence are either snake oil, or ideology. Ones which rely on "youth of today" tropes have short memories, and ample bias. Ones which, it seems, misrepresent and distort actual research are execrable.
Clive Shepherd said…
I didn't find Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows to be at all negative about the effects of using the internet. I thought it was a dispassionate exposition of his thesis that habitual use of social media and related technologies was changing us, which might have some negative as well as positive connotations. It certainly cannot be put in the same category as The Cult of The Amateur.

There's a great danger (and I'm not accusing you of this Steve), that those of us who are generally positive about the effects of social media, start to behave like a religious or political group that defends its position on the basis of faith or ideology. I don't see why we should feel threatened - it's not as if anyone can stop what's happening.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Clive. I tried to show a spectrum of representations 'from' Carr to Keen, and was not attempting a comparison, rather the presentation of a continuum - but Keen is overall completely negative. I agree that some of Carr's writing is neutral and some positive, but the overall ethos of his book, in my interpretation at least, was that he was warning us of our over-reliance on technology, hence the title. What I am also attempting to highlight here is what could be seen as cynical attempts by some authors to sell books based on sensationalism. The Telegraph article also, in my view, falls into the sensationalist category, and my caveat above is that we should not swallow this whole, simply because the author is writing in a mainstream newspaper.

I agree with you that we should attempt to maintain a fine balance and resist either the demonising of technology, or eulogising as if it is the answer to all of the world's ills. There are those who are happy to camp one side or the other, and they are welcome to do that. The onus is on them then to produce evidence to support those views.

Your last statement is telling - the technological wave is indeed unstoppable.
Steve Wheeler said…
Great comments Keith, especially around our cognitive distribution of function such as memory and recall. I firmly believe that we have a natural affinity to the tools (technology) we create, and it is a part of our natural evolution. Andy Clark in his book Natural Born Cyborgs provides a great deal of strong support for this position.
A perfect counter strike to negativism and narrow thinking. I´m in with your inspiring view: the brain works it out!
Thanks Steve.

Reading back over them, though, I need to work on brevity and clarity. No rest and little sleep does not make Keith a concise boy.

I'll put Andy Clark on my summer reading list. Thanks for the reccomendation.

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