Viewpoint

Social Media: The End or Start of a Golden Age?


In the late eighteenth century, advances in steam-powered presses and machine-made paper and ink made books affordable for the masses. Before that, a family might have a Bible, but only the clergy and aristocrats owned books. According to technology historian Cathy Davidson, the sudden flood of cheap, popular books alarmed preachers, teachers, parents, and our Founding Fathers. They feared that wild tales of anarchy and romance would corrupt girls and workmen; that "novels" would ruin democracy, cause youth to lose their ability to concentrate on serious subjects, and would forever corrupt American morals. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both wrote impassioned denunciations of the horrors of reading fiction.

What did the young people do? They read more novels. They secretly sewed little pockets into dresses and trousers to hide the novels from nervous parents. History is repeating itself. Today's alarm is about social media. I witnessed the intensity of the debate first-hand in April, at the Milken Institute Global Conference.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains noted that research in neuroscience shows that everything we do changes our brains. He fears that our increasing use of computers is making our brain operate like the Internet itself—with faster, ever-more distracted multitasking. He predicts that mankind will lose its ability to perform "deep thinking;" that we will become as shallow as the websites we visit.

Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor, went further. He talked about how multitasking—walking and talking, eating and reading, texting while watching TV—is making us inefficient, distracted, and hurting our memory. He cited experiments in which people who said they were proficient multitaskers were unable to successfully carry information from one task to the next. Nass believes that multitasking is bad for just about everything, including memory, awareness, and personal relationships. In other words, multitasking is ruining the U.S. economy.

Need Children Be Alone, Unconnected?

MIT Professor Sherry Turkle opined that the way our children communicate through SMS, Twitter, and Facebook is damaging their social skills. They prefer to communicate electronically, rather than face-to-face. They have no time alone because they're always connected. "Unless we teach our kids to be alone, they will always be lonely," she said. Turkle blames parents for introducing their children to texting. She says children watch their parents use cellular devices, stirring jealous feelings. Desperately craving attention, they start using these devices and become addicted to them, destroying relationships.

Listening to these people, I felt like we were back in the 1800s debating the evils of novels. Yes, the Internet and social media have made life more complicated; I get far too many e-mails and have to respond to hundreds of messages on Twitter and Facebook. Still, these tools have opened new worlds. They offer new sources of information, expand my thinking, and connect me to millions of people worldwide. They have allowed me to make a greater impact than was imaginable even a decade ago. And I can reach my family from anywhere at any time. I love the photos and videos they send. These have helped my spiritual evolution, not hindered it.

I was glad to hear what my Duke University colleague Cathy Davidson said on stage and in our lengthy conversations that followed. She dismissed the doomsday scenarios. She says we don't need new research to prove that the Internet has changed how we live. It is not only our children who have mastered texting and social media; so have grandma and grandpa, who use Facebook, Kindles, iPads, and iPhones. They exchange e-mails with their grandchildren.

Davidson's book, which will be out next month, is titled Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. It details neuroscience research on the phenomenon of "attention blindness"—which means that the harder we concentrate on one task, the more we miss everything else happening around us. This was demonstrated in the famous "gorilla experiment" by two Harvard psychologists. Subjects in that 1999 test were asked to watch a basketball game and count the tosses between players in black shirts. Under normal circumstances, people do a good job of counting tosses. In the experiment, only about half the subjects noticed a person in a gorilla suit who walked among the tossers, thumped her chest for a full nine seconds, and then sauntered off.

Limits of Standardized Monotasking

Davidson says that counting the right number of basketballs is similar to the standardized metrics of our educational system and assessment methods. Everything about industrial-era education and the industrial workplace was designed for monotasking, in which an individual takes one task from inception to completion. Counting the correct number of basketballs is the path to success in our society. That's why we miss the gorilla. Monotasking, not multitasking, limits us.

So is the Internet hurting us? To the contrary, Davidson cites the example of nursing home patients in Amsterdam. In 2001, the city began providing computers to seniors and connecting them to young people in Internet cafes. Medical professionals found that the rates of depression in seniors went down; they were taking fewer antidepressants and appeared to be more alert. An unexpected consequence was that Amsterdam had to build more nursing homes because seniors were not "vacating their beds" at the expected rate, but were living longer. Notably, the "over-75 crowd" is the fastest-growing age demographic on Facebook. Perhaps it helps them feel younger.

What about SMS messages, children, and parents? Davidson says that the hand-wringing is "ridiculous." Our generation has constricted the freedoms of kids out of paranoia over strangers, so children have to go on "playdates" instead of roaming free. She says texting allows children to learn independence and to be adults among their peers; it is their "workaround."

I think Davidson is right. This generation of children faces a horrendous economy. Statistically, it is the least violent most optimistic, most parent-loving, most globally aware, and least prejudiced—with the lowest amount of drug and alcohol abuse—of any recent generation.This generation will likely achieve more than any before it.It can be the most evolved.

Our children aren't constrained by the knowledge in the books they read. They can learn from peers all over the world.

Vivek_wadhwa
Vivek Wadhwa is vice president of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University, Fellow at Stanford Law School and Director of Research at Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. You can follow him on Twitter (@wadhwa) and find his research at wadhwa.com.

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