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Shallow Technology

I’ve recently read a few commentaries regarding the topic of whether the internet is making us stupid. Sometimes the issue is expressed using exactly those words and other times slightly less extreme claims are made, such as the internet reduces our attention span, or makes us multitask too much, or makes us more shallow.

The argument applies to other technologies as well, for example texting on cell phones is a favourite target for people who claim that technology makes us less literate, and of course for years there have been numerous arguments against TV as a source of entertainment and information.

I like to be on the cutting edge of new technologies so I would be expected to be affected by this more than most – so is it true? In a way yes, it is, and in others it isn’t (there’s a typical, frivolous answer for you).

For example, I know I multitask a lot more now and recent studies have shown fairly clearly that people don’t multitask well – and yes, that applies to men and women equally! But the multitasking I do is in situations where it is appropriate.

I listen to podcasts while I’m driving. Actually I’m not sure that is a good example because other research indicates that reduces my safety as a driver! So let’s try this instead: I listen to podcasts while I’m walking from one location at work to another, while I’m doing household tasks, mowing the lawn, etc. They seem like times when multitasking is a good thing.

And I surf the web a lot when I’m watching TV. That’s usually because most TV is barely worthy of my full attention because most of it has been dumbed down so much that half my attention is all it deserves. Of course, the surfing is often related to what’s on TV. For example I often announce various “fascinating” trivia about a movie my family is watching because I’m also on the IMDB web site.

New internet services seem to be emphasising short chunks of information rather than in-depth analysis. Twitter is the most obvious example of this but RSS feeds, news aggregators, web headline summaries, Facebook, and other technologies do the same thing. I use a social networking program (currently Socialite – a brilliant program) to accumulate all of these streams of information into one place. Sometimes reading the headline is all I need but for some summaries I just click and read the details in my web browser (Safari 5 – the world’s best web browser – has a useful “reader” feature which makes this easy).

So the “shallow” information sources are a great way to sort through the trending subjects and get an overview of general news and the deeper analysis is only a click away. It’s really no different from reading an old-fashioned (paper) newspaper where I might read the headline and one sentence summary of most stories and only read the whole article for stuff that particularly interests me.

The advantage of the internet is that the information can easily be aggregated from numerous sources which gives me a far less biased and more general view of the news. I feed general news from the New Zealand Herald, the ODT (our local paper), the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, MSNBC and Fox News for example. Without the internet no one could source that sort of variety of news practically.

So it seems to me that the internet isn’t making me stupid at all – it’s making me far better informed in the breadth, depth, variety, and in the objectivity of the news I read. Of course I could equally easily just choose sources that fit my political biases and many people do, but you can’t blame the technology for people who are determined to remain ignorant.

The final step for me will be the iPad (I don’t have one yet but should get one soon) because it will make accessing these sources as easy as carrying a book or newspaper. Actually it will be a lot easier because books and newspapers aren’t easy to handle in many cases. And I hope the iPad will be a sufficiently good experience that I will use it to read fiction as well. Maybe that will be the next step in my road to a paperless life (I’m already well progressed down that path).

Actually, I just noticed that I blogged about a very similar topic almost exactly two years ago (on 2008-06-10 in a post titled “Making Us Stupid?”). It’s interesting to see how things have changed (although the basic principles have stayed the same). If technology is making us stupid it’s doing it far more now than it was then and the trend is accelerating, so it does seem a bit pointless complaining, doesn’t it.

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