A popular argument is that technology is neutral – neither intrinsically good nor bad. It's what we do with it that matters. It's an appealing argument if you happen to be Apple hawking iPads and iPhones and Research In Motion peddling BlackBerries, or Google (never mind Vic Toews) wanting to know everywhere we go online and Facebook wanting to know all our "friends." It's also hogwash. Of course technology is not neutral and is shaping us.
Nicholas Carr wrote a piece in the July/August 2008 issue of Atlantic magazine with the catchy title: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He wrote: "Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going – so far as I can tell – but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. I think I know what's going on. For more than a decade now, I've been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet."
In a similar vein, Sharon Begley, Newsweek magazine's science editor, wrote a story for the Jan. 8, 2010 issue headlined, "Your Brain Online: Does the Web change how we think?" Communications scholar Howard Rheingold argued the Internet fosters "shallowness, credulity, distraction," with the result that our minds struggle "to discipline and deploy attention in an always-on milieu." Evgeny Morozov, a Belarus-born researcher and blogger, who studies the political effects of the Internet, says, "Our lives are increasingly lived in the present, completely detached even from the most recent of the pasts ... our ability to look back and engage with the past is one unfortunate victim."
I wrote about Carr, Begley, Rheingold and Morozov's thinking in a column Jan. 29, 2010. Two years on, the focus is on civility – or lack thereof – on the Internet. Using Google (no lack of irony, of course) I queried the search term "Internet civility diminished." In 0.29 seconds, Google kicked back "about 1,510,000 results." A search for "Internet coarseness and civility" yielded about 2,040,000 results in 0.32 seconds.
As well, Katie Roiphe, a journalism professor at New York University, wrote last Dec. 1 for Slate a piece headlined, "Back Off, Angry Commenters: Has the Internet unleashed new levels of bile?" in a case where the headline pretty much told the story. You can read it at: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/roiphe/2011/12/what_s_wrong_with_angry_commenters_.html