Saturday, April 26, 2014

Jacob Mikanowski - What is the internet doing to our minds?

I used to ask the internet everything. I started young. In the late 1980s, my family got its first modem. My father was a computer scientist, and he used it to access his computer at work. It was a silver box the size of a book; I liked its little red lights that told you when it was on and communicating with the world. Before long, I was logging onto message boards to ask questions about telescopes and fossils and plots of science fiction TV shows.
I kept at it for years, buying new hardware, switching browsers and search engines as needed. And then, around 2004, I stopped. Social media swallowed my friends whole, and I wanted no part of it. Friendster and Myspace and Facebook—the first great wave of social networking sites—all felt too invasive and too personal. I didn’t want to share, and I didn’t want to be seen.
So now, 10 years on, Facebook, iMessaging, and Twitter have passed me by. It’s become hard to keep up with people. I get all my news—weddings, moves, births, deaths—second-hand, from people who saw something on someone else’s feed. I never know what’s going on. In return, I have the vain satisfaction of feeling like the last real human being in a world of pods. But I am left wondering: what am I missing out on? And is everyone else missing out on something I still have?
Virginia Woolf famously said that on or about December 1910 human character changed. We don’t yet know if the same thing happened with the release of the iPhone 5—but, as the digital and “real” worlds become harder to distinguish from each other, it seems clear that something is shifting. The ways we interact with each other and with the world have altered. Yet the writing on this subject—whether it’s by social scientists, novelists or self-styled “internet intellectuals”—still doesn’t seem to have registered the full import of this transformation.
Speculation about the impact of technology on our present and future runs toward the extreme and the contradictory. Techno-utopians clash with techno-sceptics; extravagant claims of human perfectibility lock horns with dismal tales of cultural decline. This oscillation between boosterism and gloom is evident from a glance at some of the titles of influential books published over recent years: Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us SmarterBig Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live,Work, and ThinkThe Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.
Now we have three new books by academics—The App GenerationStatus Update, and It’s Complicated (all published by Yale University Press)—each of which tries to bring some much-needed clarity to the discussion. These three books strive for a more balanced approach. Each comes at the question of what the internet is doing to our minds and social lives from an empirical, social-scientific point of view. But while they mostly avoid the extremes of jubilation and despair indulged in by so many other writers on the subject, all of them are limited by their own parameters as academic studies. They raise big questions while proposing partial, cautious answers. With the exception of It’s Complicated—whose title signals its more nuanced approach—the books fail to draw big conclusions.
The App Generation was written by two professors of education: Howard Gardner of Harvard, famous for his theory of multiple intelligences (verbal, visual, bodily-kinesthetic), and his student Katie Davis, now at the University of Washington. To discover what the internet is doing to human consciousness and society, they have studied its effect on children. They begin with an assertion: that today’s young people are so immersed in technology “they’ve come to think of the world as an ensemble of apps.”
What does this assertion mean? It’s never quite clear. The App Generation doesn’t dwell on which particular apps are shaping children in their image. As the authors define it, an app is any software program that runs on a smartphone. Apps also provide an overarching metaphor for many other aspects of life. Prayer is an app because it only works if “carried out according to… specified procedures.” Religion is a “super-app.” Of course, prayer and religion are not downloadable; they are “human choreographed,” as the authors put it. Yet young people, the argument goes, have come to understand these things as formally and functionally analogous to genuine apps such as RunKeeper (which tracks your fitness) and TonePad (which allows you to make music on your iPhone). Gardner and Davis’s line of thinking lends itself to dire pronouncements—today’s youth inhabit “app consciousness, an app worldview”—and to terrible puns: “Could just the right ensemble of apps lead to a wholly ‘hAPPy’ life?”.. read more: