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Step Away from the Smartphone

It's a New Year. Maybe it's a good time to re-evaluate our ever more complicated relationship to technology.

I received an email from a friend today which, he wrote, interrupted "my year-long vow of digital semi-silence as a cellular-and-social-media-free human.” Reflecting on the hours spent on the various gadgets that surround me, I thought, 'Maybe I should take that vow in 2011.'

New York Times reporter Matt Richtel would likely think that was not a bad idea, having spent the past year on the series, Our Brain on Computers, a provocative and often jarring collection of articles exploring how the constant use of our devices impacts not only our behavior but our thought processes and even our neurology. Richtel, who won a Pulitzer in 2009 for his series of the dangers of multitasking while driving, has in the course of his research, spoken to numerous scientists who recognize the merits of technology but not unconditionally. As Richtel explained it to Teri Gross in an interview on Fresh Air earlier this year, "When you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you get a ring — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline," he says. "Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're conditioned by a neurological response: 'Check me check me check me check me.' "

We love our technology but how much is too much? Should we all be taking a “vow of digital semi-silence?” We asked Richtel for some perspective.

GOOD: So how can you tell if you’re on tech overload?

Matt Richtel: The first step is simply to ask yourself the question. The observation that’s been made to me [by many of the experts I’ve interviewed], is that for a long time we’ve embraced technology. Technology = progress = good. Silicon Valley is the white knight of industry, it’s the driver of the new economy. No politician would dare criticize it. Moreover we associate it with productivity. If you were to carry around a television, people would say ‘I don’t think so,’ but if you carry around a device that has productivity aspects to it you and others accept that it is bringing positive attributes to your life.

Experts say, ‘start examining your digital diet.’ [After the New York Times series came out], a lot of people wrote to me to say ‘Once I started to think about it I realized, holy cow, I’m on this a lot and on it more than I’ve fully realized.’ And myself, I’ve been cognitive of this with my two little kids. For me to take my attention off them and on this, it’s astonishing. No one is trying to reach me yet I am compulsively checking. There’s a term for this—intermittent reinforcement—you never know when you’re going to get something good or thrilling so you check all the time.

GOOD: How concerned should we be about the effect technology is having on our kids today?

Richtel: The overriding thing that researchers say to me is that as the brain develops it does so in response to its environment and if the environment is one in which attention is constantly switching then that habit or skill might happen at the expense of developing the grey matter involved in focus. That’s why there are some prominent pediatric folks recommending downtime, not screentime, as a way to develop the parts of the brain that are involved with creativity, analysis, deeper thought. If you’re constantly “on” you might compromise your optimal abilities in that regard. That’s what researchers characterize as nothing short of being very scary. Further, researchers say that parents tend to set up a much bigger example than they realize. When parents are trying to get their kids less engaged with devices, they should look at their own behavior.

This has an impact on adults as well. Plenty of studies show the myth of multitasking. But the difference with adults is that their brains are already developed—scientists say we already have the ability to focus. We’re not habituated form an early age to constantly switch our attention. No doubt this has a material impact on adults—on performance, focus, creativity, deeper thought, how we related to each other interpersonally.

GOOD: Can this dependence on technology be related to say, the propensity to overeat?

Richtel: So this is gleaned from all the people I talked to: they talk about technology as being analogous to food. You need food, you need technology. This is not a Luddite philosophy--it’s just that some food is Brussels sprouts and some is Twinkies. Just as you can overeat, you can abuse your brain by overindulging or making bad choices about technology. No one would say ‘food is good, let’s eat as much as possible.’

GOOD:Americans have a terrible time with achieving a balanced diet? Is there a balance to be found with technology or will the pace just keep accelerating?

Richtel: Yes and yes. We can find balance but we have to be deliberate. There are vested interests in accelerating us. These devices play at really primitive impulses, and for that matter, so do Doritos. They are the perfect combination of fat and sugar but in a different era you had to search for days for that, hunt something, bring it back to your cave. Now you walk to a vending machine and press a button. So now we have the perfect experience without the cost. Our brains are getting constantly pinged with stimulation…but I do think there is a balance to be found. And it will keep accelerating. It’s being discussed that the idea of digital divide is shifting—it used to describe people who didn’t have access to technology, now it’s about the people who can’t peel themselves away from it.

GOOD: When you’re not reporting for the Times, you’re writing novels. Your new book, The Devil’s Plaything, which comes out in May, promises to explore “the emergence of neuro-tech—the collision of neuroscience and high technology. No doubt as a writer, you have genuine concerns about all these threats to our attention spans. Maybe a return of the serial is a possible antidote?

Richtel: I think you’re dead right. I’m friends with a lot of thriller writers. I moderated a panel at at a conference and asked panelists what technology has done to their attention spans and they all talked about how much shorter their chapters were. At some point there will be a master of the medium, someone wielding iambic pentameter with grace and speed. It will feed the appetite of this generation.

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