Woe Is The Information Age
June 8, 2011 by John Myers
If you think the Information Age has advanced the world and is leading to the pursuit of happiness, think again. Now in my 50s, I am convinced technology is killing our spirit and setting us up for a big fall. And while I don’t consider myself a Luddite, my three children might disagree.
I bought an Apple II Plus in 1983. It was a marvel. I still needed a dictionary because Bill Gates had not yet invented MS Word. I even took a week-long class in Seattle, Wash. to learn how to dial-up the Ethernet. It was the precursor to the Internet and was painfully slow. My publisher used to come into my office. He would get frustrated that I couldn’t seem to reach a supercomputer like H.A.L. and have every answer to any question. I didn’t know that the world was on the brink of that dream.
iPhones Won’t Win Friends
Twenty years ago, I bought a Motorola cell phone, which was appropriately called “the brick.” It was a serious status symbol and came with a built-in excuse: people could reach me in case there was an emergency.
Today, I don’t own a cell phone, and I don’t want to. There never does seem to be an emergency; they still make pay phones; and, frankly, it seems like too much work to learn how to operate these devices which have almost every application you can dream of. Now even children own cell phones, so whatever status they had disappeared long ago.
My wife already accuses me of being obsessive-compulsive about checking my email on my PC at work. I have decided that when I get away from the office, I really do want to be away.
Has all this information made us more productive or more intelligent? I don’t believe so. When I was a young editor for my father’s newsletter, we made his publication special because we did something few other newsletters did. We put in a lot of research. I sometimes would put in the better part of a week at the old Spokane Public Library.
It may have taken me hours to find a fact that can now be retrieved in two minutes on Google. I had to read a lot of books, but the worst of it was going over scores of microfiche or outdated statistic tables. The process was enlightening. It might take a dozen magazines to find what China’s gross domestic product was, but in that search I would learn much more.
Today, fifth-graders can look up China’s GDP in seconds. That doesn’t mean they have an understanding of China or what is happening to that country and to the rest of the world that must compete against it. One-sentence answers abound, but the Information Revolution has created a void when it comes to an understanding of what is really happening.
A year ago, The Wall Street Journal carried this headline: “Does The Internet Make You Dumber?” The story reported: “Today, the Internet grants us easy access to unprecedented amounts of information. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is also turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.”
Texting Me Crazy
I dropped off my wife at the grocery store the other day and was driving through the parking lot. A young mother with her baby in a stroller was busy texting on her cell phone when she walked directly in front of my car. I stopped with plenty of room to spare. But had I also been texting, I would have hit the both of them. According to a recently published study by Virginia Tech, people who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be in an accident.
I wonder about the people who show complete and utter disrespect for others by carrying out loud cell-phone conversations while shopping, in elevators or while at the gym. I started going to athletic clubs 35 years ago. They never did turn me into an athlete, but I am convinced working out is a better stress reliever than any pill or shrink. At least it was until people started bringing their cell phones to the gym. I finally got so fed up with people talking about their everyday trivia that I gave up my membership. I now burn calories uninterrupted in a tiny, but quiet, weight room on the main floor of my office building.
As I watch everyday people engaged in their serious conversations that can’t wait, I wonder: What job do they have? They don’t look like they run a major oil company or are police detectives. Yet they talk and text as if lives depended on it. Most seem oblivious to the world around them and everyone else in it.
The epitome of ego is Twitter, the network for microblogging on which people have the audacity to broadcast instantly any thought that pops into their mind. People love celebrities, so they sign up by the thousands to receive updates by the likes of Charlie Sheen (to find out whether he is still “winning!”) and Maria Shriver (to learn her latest thoughts on her cheating husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger).
It all seems like a huge waste of time. None of it makes our children smarter or the workforce more productive. In fact, the Internet and all the personal communication devices that come with it might be doing the opposite. Teachers have had to ban cell-phone use in the classroom. All for good reason, says Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel.
According to Kandel, students can pay deep attention to a new piece of information only when they are able to associate it “meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory.” Such associations are essential, but they don’t take place when people are surfing on their laptops, jabbering on their BlackBerrys or texting on their iPhones.
The cold truth is that technology is not the panacea for all that ills us. It is a tool we should control. Yet it seems to controls us.
Yours in good times & bad,
Editor, Myers’ Energy & Gold Report