Are our brains becoming technologically 're-wired?'
April 2, 2012
by Mark Ollig

This question is being raised in relation to how we obtain and process information in this day of hyper-linked, packet-switched, instantaneously provided Internet results.

Are we placing too much trust and reliance upon the information we can easily find using the Internet?

Instead of depending upon one’s own brain for storing and recalling information, it has become almost effortless to simply type a keyword in the web browser, or click a bookmark that enables a hyperlink which recalls’ the information for us from an Internet-based data server.

“As machine intelligence advances, the first response of humans is to offload their intelligence and motivation to the machines,” said John Smart, founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation.

Are we really making progress because of our instant access to information? Or, are we surrendering too much of our own brain power to computing memory devices and processors, which may someday end up doing most of our remembering and research for us?

“There is no doubt that brains are being rewired,” said Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research.

Today’s young adults and teens are comfortable using mobile devices, whether it’s an iPhone, Android, or other smartphone or tablet computing device. They maintain instant access to family, friends, and the Internet. They are living what is being called the “always-on lifestyle.”

They, and many of us, are walking around with our always-on smartphones or other portable computing devices which provide instant access to our social media circles, for example.

Always-on also provides the ability to obtain an instant answer to any question – at any time – by querying the Internet.

Are we, as a recent Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project study suggests, becoming overly absorbed into our technology?

Pew’s latest study released some new numbers.

Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are now being used by 76 percent of teens, and 77 percent of them also have a cell phone.

Of the young adults 18 to 29, Pew found 96 percent are using the Internet, 84 percent are using social networking sites, and 97 percent own a cell phone. Within this age group, 23 percent own mobile computing devices, such as an iPad.

Many of us are following other people’s user-generated content via online social media sites.

Pew discovered of the 225 million Twitter users, almost 20 million are following 60 or more other Twitter accounts.

More than 500 Twitter accounts are followed by about 2 million Twitter users.

More than 800 million people are now using Facebook, and collectively spend about 700 billion minutes each month on it.

Using Facebook also means uploading a lot of photos. Recently, I have been uploading pictures I have taken off of the Decorah (Iowa) Eagle Cam.

More than 100 billion photos were uploaded by Facebook users by the middle of 2011.

YouTube users are uploading 60 hours of video every minute.

In 2011, YouTube videos generated more than 1 trillion (yes, trillion) user playbacks.

I hear more people saying, “Just Google it,” when it comes to finding answers these days.

Is having instant information gratification possibly causing a lack of due diligence when a subject or an issue needs, not just a simple answer to a question, but an application of critical thinking and problem solving techniques?

While chatting online, I have seen the following done time and time again. Instead of texting one’s own words, someone will simply post a Wikipedia link in response to a topic that is being discussed.

It seems some people’s skillset includes the ability to quickly perform Internet searches.

Is this the future of critical thinking? I sure hope not.

Will the next user we find ourselves in an online chat room with end up being an auto-answering Wiki-bot?

Some people have expressed concern with online technology dependency.

“The short attention spans resulting from the quick interactions will be detrimental to focusing on the harder problems, and we will probably see a stagnation in many areas: technology, even social venues such as literature,” said Alvaro Retana, a technologist with Hewlett-Packard.

Looking at the positive side of integrating technology with our social and informational research is Susan Price, who is the organizer of this fall’s TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conference in San Antonio, TX. Price says, “Those who bemoan the perceived decline in deep thinking or engagement, face-to-face social skills, and dependency on technology fail to appreciate the need to evolve our processes and behaviors to suit the new reality and opportunities.”

Jeff Jarvis, an author, journalist, and speaker says, “I do not believe technology will change our brains and how we are wired. But it can change how we cognate and navigate our world.”

I feel we should, however, guard ourselves from becoming overly-dependent upon any computing device – let’s not allow our cognitive brain to lapse into a false sense of security.

I also believe, at times, it wouldn’t hurt to validate information obtained thru the Internet by using a bit of common sense and old-fashioned fact-checking.

A person I once worked with had a saying, “Consider the source.”

Of course, the Internet will continue to play an important part of our brains ongoing learning, communication, entertainment, social, and always-on technological lifestyle.

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