Overdose

When the iconic Stage Manager in a recent off-Broadway production of Our Town made his entrance carrying a cell phone, a murmur rippled through the audience. Wilder’s play has long been associated with slow time and small-town values. What would the playwright have made of this high-tech intrusion?

The question provides an interesting vantage point for assessing Larry Rosen’s new book, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn. A professor of psychology at California State University, Rosen has put together a book that is part ethnography (detailing the lives of “digital natives” born during the 1990s) and part manifesto (predicting how Web-related technologies will revolutionize the classrooms of the twenty-first century). Rewired is nothing if not topical. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, half of American teenagers send fifty or more text messages a day, and one-third send over a hundred; many sleep with their cell phones at their sides. Rosen says this translates into as much as twenty hours a day of media consumption, with teens toggling among multiple IMs (instant messages), Facebook posts, and, yes, the occasional homework assignment.

Rosen’s take on this state of affairs can be summed up simply: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Teachers may bemoan the ubiquitous cell phone and students’ consequent inability to pay attention in class. But the iGeneration, Rosen explains, is incapable of unitasking, and this is a “stark reality” teachers must accept. “Gone are the days when students would sit quietly in class, reading a book or doing a math worksheet,” he writes. “Literally, their minds have changed—they have been ‘rewired.’” iGeners cannot live without a constant IV drip of Facebook, Twitter, and a growing array of virtual, 3-D experiences. Not only is Rosen not bothered by this, he proposes new ways of increasing the flow. In the classroom of the future, he predicts, homework assignments will be handed in via cell phone, and traditional lectures—and textbooks—will be replaced by avatars and other virtual wizardry. Tomorrow’s teacher will be primarily a facilitator of digital data.

Rosen is but one voice in a lively and sometimes contentious debate about the long-term impact of digital technologies on behavior and the brain. On one side is a group of Internet evangelists (Rosen included) who see Web-related technologies as a panacea for the inadequacies of modern education. University of Toronto researcher Mark Federman, for example, considers literacy and the literary mind “quaint” notions. Educators must abandon the “linear, hierarchical” world of the book and convert to the Web’s “ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity.” According to Clay Shirky, a digital-media scholar at New York University, we have been “emptily praising” writers like Tolstoy and Proust for too long.

On the other side of the digital divide, a growing number of psychologists worry about the effect of excessive digital stimulation on children and their developing brains. Their research ranges from headline-grabbing issues like cyberbullying and sexual predation to subtler questions about media immersion, the corresponding decrease in face-to-face interaction, and its effect on young people’s ability to form deep, lasting bonds.

Let’s shed some light on this debate by journeying back to Grover’s Corners and revisiting the courtship of George and Emily, the protagonists of Our Town. At a crucial point in their relationship, the two undertake an earnest, tear-filled examination of their love. At the corner drugstore, where they’ve gone for an ice-cream soda, the Stage Manager/soda jerk, Mr. Morgan, notices Emily’s tears and asks what’s wrong. Covering for her, George says she was nearly knocked off her feet by a hardware-store wagon. Mr. Morgan nods wisely. “I tell you, you’ve got to look both ways before you cross Main Street these days,” he says. “There are a hundred and twenty-five horses in Grover’s Corners this minute I’m talking to you.... And now they’re bringing in these auto-mo-biles, the best thing to do is to just stay home.” The Stage Manager leaves to serve another customer; by the time he returns, not only has Emily dried her tears but the couple has agreed to marry.

Wilder’s soda-fountain scene is at once a celebration of young love and a lament about the ever-increasing speed and mechanization of life. That plaintive melody has echoed down through the decades, reiterated by writers bemoaning the amped-up pace of modern life. Charlie Chaplin lampooned our obsession with speed in Modern Times, and Eric Schlosser railed against it in Fast Food Nation. The poet John O’Donohue once called the spirit of our age “the religion of rush.” And in his 2004 memoir, American Sucker, the New Yorker film critic David Denby described a metropolis driven by a “speed fetish” and tormented by “the constant need to keep up.”

Speed and mechanization inform a central issue in the digital debate: the merits of multitasking, and how much of it educators and parents should allow. The iGeneration are master multitaskers, and recent neurological research ties their prowess in part to the innate “elasticity” of the brain. As software companies release new computer games, as Apple unveils yet another app, and as cell phones morph from phone to texting device to video player, young users become ever more adept at navigating a kaleidoscope of images and options. Such dexterity, however, comes at a price. Experts note that multitaskers not only have trouble filtering out extraneous information, but take longer to complete tasks. They tend to search for new information rather than putting older, more valuable information to work. And the scariest thing of all, says Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford University, is that multitaskers can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they are not multitasking.

In Rewired, Rosen touches on this troubling research, then shrugs it off, asserting that the “lab conditions” in which such studies are conducted have little relevance to real life. In fact, evidence abounds of the not-so-benign impact of multitasking. A pandemic of distraction currently grips America, manifested in the increasing number of texting drivers and epitomized by the Los Angeles train conductor who, after sending and receiving over forty text messages, collided head-on with a freight train, killing twenty-five people. And is it a coincidence that teen violence has escalated in the years since cell-phone companies (and their advertisers) established beachheads in the hearts and minds of the young? “I want it all, and I want it now” is the mantra of the iGeneration, Rosen himself acknowledges. Yet instead of seeking ways to correct this impulse in the classroom, he wants to encourage it, proposing new pedagogies for promoting multitasking and “feeding the young brain what it wants.”

Multitasking is but one symptom of what might be called DDD—Digital Distraction Disorder. Another is the lure of virtual communication. Members of the iGeneration believe that they “truly, absolutely have three hundred best friends,” Rosen says of the texting, tweeting teens who wile away the hours on Facebook and other social-networking sites. He thinks this is just fine, and maybe it is. Meanwhile, however, a recent article in the journal The Future of Children observes that the prevalence of electronic communication may be making teens less interested in real-life interactions with friends. And a report from the New York University Child Study Center notes that virtual exchanges between children are steadily becoming more superficial and public. “When we were younger we would be on the phone for hours at a time with one person,” NYU psychologist Lori Evans told the New York Times recently. Kids today chat online in groups—but Facebook, Evans added, “is not a conversation.” Imagine George and Emily working out their differences by instant message or on Facebook. The deeper (and hidden) danger of excessive social networking is that it undermines our ability to watch, listen to, and simply be with others. “The way we become more human,” Clifford Nass says, “is by paying attention to each other.”

Even more alienating than run-of-the-mill social-networking sites are Second Life and other virtual venues where users—or “residents”—erect buildings and fashion environments. Rosen studied one virtual classroom in which students learned about the art and architecture of the Sistine Chapel. “I was almost in tears watching the children moving their avatars all around the chapel and actually looking at the art,” reports the teacher. “It is amazing to watch how technology can finally be used as more than just a babysitter.”

Rosen lauds both teacher and technology, declaring that the use of virtual pedagogies is changing the focus of the learner “from a passive receptacle to an active engager.” But what happens when that active engager has to go back out to his now boring and seemingly one-dimensional actual life? Not long after the publication of Rosen’s book, a South Korean couple was charged with negligent homicide in the death of their three-month-old baby. Returning home after an all-night Internet gaming session, they found their infant daughter dead. In their virtual, 3-D lives, husband and wife were omnipotent, raising a family, traveling to exotic lands, slaying dragons. Back in real life, they couldn’t even change their baby’s diapers—or feed her. The child died from malnutrition and dehydration.

I am not advocating a moratorium on technology—digital or otherwise—in the classroom. Nor am I suggesting that digital technologies are the root of all evil. I routinely incorporate music and video (and blogs and even social-networking sites) into my own work as an educator. And I found many of the suggestions Rosen offers for teaching students how to be discerning users of the Internet worthwhile. But I do think we need to be careful not to overindulge. I don’t get up in the morning and have a couple of beers before breakfast, nor do I text (or tweet or talk on the phone) while I am driving or crossing the street—or working on a book review, for that matter. A number of psychologists locate the solution to the great digital debate precisely in this moderated approach, urging us not to blame technology, but to develop self-control.

If we do, we may just succeed in making room for more in our lives than checking e-mail and surfing the Web. I know of a college professor who taught Neil Postman’s 1985 critique of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in her classes, and assigned her students to go on an “e-media fast” for twenty-four hours—no telephone, radio, television, Internet, etc. Even the students who disliked the assignment found they had time to do things they hadn’t done in years. “The experience changes them,” the professor notes. “Some are so affected that they determine to fast on their own.”

Ironically, the man many consider to be the father of the wired age, Marshall McLuhan, wrote prophetically of these concerns in 1962. “Man was not designed to live at the speed of light,” McLuhan asserted.

Without the countervailing balance of natural and physical laws, the new video-related media will make man implode upon himself. As he sits in the informational control room, whether at home or at work, receiving data at enormous speeds—imagistic, sound, or tactile—from all areas of the world, the results could be dangerously inflating and schizophrenic. His body will remain in one place but his mind will float out into the electronic void, being everywhere at once in the data bank.

Do not look for that “countervailing balance” in Larry Rosen’s classroom. And don’t look for it in the multitasking, rewired minds of the iGeners—they are already floating somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn. No, it is teachers and educators—and, dare I say, parents—who must provide the counterweight to the inebriating influence of the Internet. Assuming, that is, that we ourselves can stay anchored to Mother Earth.


Related: Changing Our Minds, by Christine Neulieb

Published in the 2010-12-17 issue: 
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Robin Antepara teaches intercultural communication at Gakushuin University in Japan.

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