Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows : What the internet is doing to our brains, has been an insightful book for me which has changed my views on technology, helped articulate the nagging sense that something was amiss with my technology use, and more importantly has changed my practices around digital technology and media. We often think only of the benefits and utility that technology gives but we are often oblivious to the downsides and hidden costs that technology can bring with it. My intention is to make those hidden costs less invisible and to show that one of the high costs of digital media and technology is its potential to erode our capacity for top-down, goal directed internal attention.
I will firstly show that digital technology is not neutral, “the message is the medium”; the form that technology is in has effects beyond the content it carries. Secondly I will argue that digital technology is not designed to be neutral because of the financial incentives that underlie it and the design philosophies behind it. Thirdly I will look at one of the most prevalent effects of digital technology on us when we use it and what it takes us away from. The fourth part is to evaluate the significance of the impact of technology on us in light of the intention of biblical practices in forming us to be people of a particular kind. The fifth part will be to sketch out some general principles on how we should live in light of what we now know.
Technology is not neutral – function follows form
The dominant and popular view of technology is that it is neutral (particularly digital technology and media which is exemplified by things like smartphones, computers, social media sites and app). The view is that digital technology isneutral and what matters is what you use it for, what content you access through it. Are you using it to connect with friends, educate yourself or watch pornography. The impact and value of digital technology is solely in terms of the content, the actual structure and form that the content comes in we often consider to be neutral. This is a mistake. The form of our technology has the capacity to shape us as individuals and as a society beyond the content it carries. The form of technology carries ideas and messages
To help illustrate and make clearer in concrete terms what I mean let us look at the impact of screens on us. Our devices and their screens emit blue light which is part of the visible portion of the of electromagnetic spectrum. Relative to other types of lights, blue light has shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies. And because the energy that light has is proportional to its frequency blue light has higher energy than other types of light.
Our normal exposure to blue light comes from the sun and our exposure to it triggers the release of a hormone called cortisol which boosts our alertness. Continued exposure to blue light in the evening suppresses melatonin which induces sleep; and resets the body’s internal clock (also known as circadian rhythm which regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle). Blue light exposure can also reduce the quality of our sleep and some research has found that screen time in the last hour before sleep is related to sleep problems.
So we see here that the form of our digital media, its physical form, has an impact on us regardless of what we are using the device for. Whether we are using our devices for work, play, chatting or reading – the form of our digital devices has effects on our sleep. What I want to argue here is that what is true of digital devices’ impact on our sleep, is true for more complex and subtle but important aspects of our behaviour – such as our capacity for focused attention.
The idea that the form of technology has an impact on us beyond the use and content is not a novel one but was already recognized by the likes of Socrates and Plato. Neil Postman in his book, Technopoly, begins with the story found in Plato’s book Phaedrus. In it Plato tells a story of an Egyptian king Thamus who is shown various inventions by a Theuth a god and inventor. Theuth shows Thamus his greatest invention, writing, to which Thamus replies:
Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.
Plato through Thamus gives us some ancient but sound general principles to think about technology through. Firstly, technology has consequences beyond what the inventor, aiming to solve an immediate practical problem, intended. There are unintended consequences that technology brings which the inventor of a technology cannot foresee and predict. It also means that technology always has both downsides and upsides – it gives but also takes away. One always hopes that it gives more than it takes. A point which a culture such as our own, enamored with the successes of digital technology, can often fail to see.
Thamus pointed out the downsides that writing would bring – downsides that are independent of the content. Nicholas Carr, in his book, The Shallows, a book I am indebted to for really articulating the sense I had that digital technology and media was forming me in ways I could not precisely put my finger on, points out the upsides of writing. Print media, writing, the book, with its form and structure that is visually bland and comprised of static linear text; helps cultivate our capacity for top down attentional control – deep focus. The form of print book draws us beyond the text itself – it is not visually stimulating – and pulls us to focus on the ideas the text carries. It builds our ability to focus deeply, read deeply and think deeply. This is the “bias” of print media and writing.
Secondly, the structure and form of technology is not neutral with regards to content. The form of technology has a bias and better accommodates certain content at the expense of others and is therefore not neutral. To borrow an illustration from Neil Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death; smoke signals as a form of communication to distant neighbours excludes certain types of content, one cannot send a philosophy essay through smoke signals. Digital media and the internet has a bias for short form over long form, content must cater for short attention spans, and be broken down into shareable chunks.
The form of technology also changes how we experience the content. Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows, brings this to our attention in a number of ways. Reading patterns online are different from reading patterns for print media. Surveys have found that people are reading more online but that their mode of reading is more skimming and browsing compared to reading print material where their reading is more focused and in depth. Other research has found when reading online people read in an “F” like pattern. We read the first sentence or two and then skip a paragraph or two then read one or two sentences and then jump further down. That linear line by line attentive reading tends to vanish when reading online. This is especially surprising given that the online world gives us access to content of immediate interest to us and yet we engage with it more and more superficially.
Another aspect in which you can see this principle at work is research on text with hyperlinks. Carr recalls studies that showed how hyperlinked text affects how people recall and understand text. One of these studies found that the number of hyperlinks in a passage influenced the level of comprehension of the passage; the more links included in the passage, the lower the level of comprehension achieved. This finding was in line with the general research on the effects of hyperlinked texts on comprehension, that it leads to an “increased cognitive load” and can therefore diminish reader’s capacity to read and comprehend text. Reading text with hyperlinks requires the reader to make decisions (should I click the link or not); and because comprehension and decision making engages different cognitive skills, we end up switching between the cognitive tasks. Although the switching might be imperceptible to us, none the less it increases our cognitive load and takes away valuable limited cognitive resources from comprehending and thinking through the text.
It is obvious then that technology in general and digital technology in particular is not neutral; its structure and form affects how we experience the content we choose to access through it. It has the tendency to reward and cultivate habits of hurriedness, diminished comprehension and cluttered thinking.