068 laptopI used to view movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Colossus: The Forbin Project, as completely improbable. As far as I was concerned computers were machines without autonomous thought; they had neither the capacity or desire to rule humanity. Today, we are surrounded by much smaller and more sophisticated computers, and imagine a world devoid of these devices as a dreary dark ages. Computers have not taken control of the humanity – we have given it to them.

Before I entered grade school, I knew something about computers. That may be ordinary today but unusual for someone born in the 1950’s. However, my father worked for General Electric in Louisville, Kentucky which housed one of the first non-government computers in use. At that time a computer was a bit intimidating, filling an entire room with rows of cabinets containing tapes for storage. It was a huge, main frame computer using vacuum tubes for circuits that had less power and speed than today’s hand-held devices. Add a few blinking lights and monotone voice and you have the image of a malevolent, super-intelligent machine with a human tendency towards egomania that the general public liked to frighten themselves with in movies.

Well, we haven’t exactly given control to the computer, but to the human-run corporations and organizations providing us with the apps, software, services and hardware. We have become dependent on constant internet access to find our way when driving, to entertain our children during the long drive, etc. We typically pay for these with cold, hard credit cards or a wealth of information that will provide companies the data to target us with special ads.

Because of the easy access to information, there is less need to remember what used to fill our heads or note books. We just need to know something general about a topic, details can always be found on Internet search engines. What do we give in exchange for this convenience? According to author Nicholas Carr, there is evidence that our thinking has been changed by the shallow nature of reading as we flit from site to site on the computer. We skim text and then dart off in another direction through enhanced text or attention grabbing ads. The residual effect – greater tendency to be distracted and lower tolerance for reading for an extended period.[1]

The same thing is true of videos; advice offered by Wistia video hosting states “Psychologists say that the average human sustained attention span is 20 minutes. But for online videos it seems to be about 60 seconds.”[2] Others may not claim that attention has been truncated to that extreme, but I have not found anyone recommending internet videos longer than 3 minutes.

With so much “short” material produced for the internet, attracting viewer attention requires additional flash. This distraction has another affect. At University of Kentucky, the authors of a study on ADHD have found increased exposure to electronic media increases ADHD in children and leads to social problems. According to Elizabeth Lorch “Why did an event happen, why did a character do this — that’s where the comprehension and recall of children with ADHD tends to fall down.” Co-author Richard Milich commented “This inability to see causal relations may affect this social problem we’ve known for 30 years.”[3]

The correlation of time spent on computer with increase in asocial behavior has been well documented. In 2004, The Annual Review of Psychology published research that indicated “greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants’ communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness.”[4]

Of course, I am not advocating that we return to the pre-computer dark ages. Rather we need to realize the problems that occur when our lives are constantly immersed in electronic media. We all need large chunks of electronic free time, when we sharpen old skills like non-interactive reading, writing by hand and talking face to face. E-free time needs to be set aside for everyday life and classrooms as well, so we practice how to stay connected like humans.

[1] Carr, Nicolas, Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains The Atlantic July/August 2008) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ (accessed December 12, 2012)
[2] “4 ways to keep viewers engaged in an online video”, February 7, 2011 http://wistia.com/blog/4-ways-to-keep-viewers-engaged-in-an-online-video/ (accessed December 12, 2012)
[3] “UK Psychologists Featured in New York Times story on ADHD” http://psychology.as.uky.edu/uk-psychologists-featured-new-york-times-story-adhd-0  (accessed December 12, 2012)
[4] Kraut, Robert; Patterson, Michael; Lundmark, Vicki; Kiesler, Sara; Mukophadhyay, Tridas; Scherlis, William. “Results of interaction depends on usage goals, however some characteristics unique to internet”  The Internet and Social Life, Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 55: 573-590 ( February 2004)

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