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

The Internet will not rot your brainor those of your children. Web communications will better connect us all with the world, Vivek Wadhwa argues in Bloomberg BusinessWeek

By Vivek Wadhwa

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 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 itselfwith 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 multitaskingwalking and talking, eating and reading, texting while watching TVis 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.

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You can also buy Cathy Davidson's book referenced in the article, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn here.


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