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iPod. iPhone. iPad. iFlit.

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Photo Credit: Courtesy: Apple Inc.

Digital gadgets are everywhere, and they are changing the rhythms and rituals of daily life. But are they changing them for better or worse? In this week’s Centre Square commentary, Chris Satullo ponders that question.

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An Atlantic magazine cover posed the question crisply a few years back:

“Is Google rewiring our brains?”

The answer seems to be yes.

Not just Google, but the whole array of digital seductions that surround us, the iPhones, iPads, Facebooks and Foursquares.

Sifting through the data cascades of this wired world can actually change the circuitry of our brain.

Here’s an irony: This rewiring isn’t so much propelling us into a sci-fi future as returning us, in an evolutionary sense, to the prehistoric grasslands, the veldt.

As a great piece in the New York Times recently detailed, brain researchers are exploding the myth of the hyper-efficient multi-tasker. That guy with the Bluetooth, Blackberry and Macbook fired up simultaneously? He probably isn’t doing the great job of absorbing, judging and producing that he thinks he is. What he’s mostly great at, the research suggests, is getting distracted.

Blame it on the veldt. Our most primitive brain wiring rewards us with a sizzling squirt of dopamine whenever we rivet attention on a new stimulus. Why? That new information might be a hungry lion approaching. Nowadays, though, it’s more likely to be an inane Tweet from a tedious celebrity. No matter, the brain pivots eagerly. This could be important!!!

One of the hardest truths for Americans to grasp is that change is not always progress.

Yes, there’s much to celebrate in a world where so much information, once available only to elites, is just a mouse-click away for many. But information is not the same as knowledge. It’s yet another step away from understanding, and a very long walk from wisdom.

Thanks to Google, we can “know” fabulous amounts more than our ancestors did – yet sometimes all that does is make us quicker to fall for toxic fallacies.

Inside the cascade, it’s easy for lies to masquerade as facts. And as information drenches us, human nature still leads us cling mostly to those factoids that happen to confirm our biases.

We are maddening creatures. And nothing Steve Jobs invents can change that. Let’s just take care that our gadgets don’t drive us even more mad.


  • David James says:

    What a disappointment!

    I missed hearing this editorial when it was originally aired over FM or streamed from WHYY onto my iPhone. When I discovered it today here on your website after surfing to it on my iPhone, I found, alas, that it requires Adobe Flash Player on my device to hear a re-streaming of it.

    As you probably know, all Apple mobile devices cannot support the Flash player (for very reasonable and technically insurmountable reasons). So, until you folks add other standard streaming media formats (e.g., HTML5, QuickTime, etc.) to your website, we Chris Satullo fans who want to hear him on our iPhones, iPads & iPodTouches are going to be SOL.

    Please help us ASAP. And thanks for posting this website (at least).

  • Marc says:

    It always amazes me that my friends and colleagues inherently accept that any new technology out on the market is an improvement on life. I am the black sheep of my group because I tend to question any gadget or tool that promises to make things, “easier”. Somehow, I manage to live as well, find all of the addresses and locations of our gatherings, tune my guitars and know which beer to order at the bar without the help of a smart phone.

    My friends are excited because apparently you can edit video on the new Iphone. I had to laugh because I didn’t realize that capability was missing from my life.

    When things get too easy, it removes the challenge, the desire, and the effort that makes life worth living. Exactly how easy do we want things to be? I prefer to do and think for myself, without the supposed help of these expensive and fleeting gadgets.

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