Steven Pinker follows two people on Twitter.
In his recent New York Times piece Mind Over Mass Media, Pinker, a renown cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Harvard, lashes out at a series of recent articles that he sees as representations of the “moral panic” about the rise of new media. The brain, Pinker explains, is not being fundamentally altered by Twitter, Facebook and other internet tools.
Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how “experience can change the brain.” But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience.
Pinker dismisses fears that the internet is doing real damage to our noggins. But he underestimates the addictive nature of the beast, and the extent to which the realtime, social web can affect our behaviors, our ability to concentrate and our relationship with the real world.
Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life.
Sure, distraction is not a new phenomenon. But this kind of distraction is. People in my generation went from having no connectivity to walking around with a pocketful of our extended social network, an incoming stream of realtime data, and much more.
Come on. Who are you going to believe: some brain expert analyzing your internet usage from his ivory tower of academia or me, a sick, twitchy freak who is eyeball deep in the same social opium den as the rest of you addicts?
Pinker suggests that these distractions can be overcome with a little self-control: Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.
But here’s the problem. For millions of people, email and Twitter are integral to their work. And their work days extend into their nights. Your spouse calls you to bed at a decent hour, but when you get there, she’s got her laptop open. The realtime web is, increasingly, everywhere. Sure, you can put your Blackberry away at dinner, but what about the iPad from which you’re reading your recipe for dessert? Yes, you can turn off your computer and curl up with a good novel. Except your novel is now being read on a device that also serves up your Twitter and email. The social web is in your videogames, it’s on your TV and soon it will be in your cars.
You try to hide but the web finds you.
During the same period that Pinker’s article appeared in the New York Times, the most popular piece on that site was titled, Your Brain on Computers: The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In.
Was that article so widely read because every parent is panicking about their brains being altered? No, it’s because for many parents, that title could have been written by their conscience.
You know why you see so many articles on this topic? Because so many journalists are early adopters and have moved their work and their lives onto portable devices where they research, write and then track how well their articles are being trafficked and disseminated around the realtime web. I have spent the last decade working with internet professionals — the people who fund, design, build and promote the web. I don’t know a single one of these people who hasn’t worried about the extent to which this technology has taken over their lives and infiltrated countless quiet moments that were once reserved for an uninterrupted walk with their kids or a little while alone with a good book.
If the early adopters are worrying about the role of realtime technologies in their lives now, you can bet everyone else will be worried about it soon.
And they should be.
The other night I was at a restaurant with three of my best friends who are following wildly different career paths. We spent the entire dinner wondering whether the realtime, social web was negatively impacting our personal, intellectual and even creative lives. At one point we noticed that two out of the five people having dinner together at the adjacent table were on their iPhones.
We’re really talking about two internets here. Pinker’s internet — a mass media repository of knowledge and creativity that should be embraced. And the other internet that can ruin your dinner (and your life).
Of course, we shouldn’t panic. But a guy who follows only two people on Twitter telling me not to worry about the impact of the realtime web is like a guy who’s had his first sip of a wine spritzer telling people at an A.A. meeting that everything will be fine as long as they just show a little restraint.
I’ll accept Pinker’s big ideas about the human brain, I just think he massively downplays the impact the realtime web has on our behavior. He ends his piece with this claim: Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.
Follow a few more people on Twitter and then tell me that.