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Are Internet negatives overstated?
John B. monteiro
The Internet might be short-circuiting our minds — but is it
scrambling us more than television did 60 years ago? More than
automobiles? More than books?
We now have sophisticated brain-scanning capabilities that weren’t
available to test the impact of those earlier inventions. But, treating
the Internet as if it were a singular, unique e-drug — the way that
many hand-wringing news reports are wont to do — seems strange.
Presumably, new technologies have always transformed our brains, in
ways big and small. Otherwise we’d still be clubbing our dinner to
death with big rocks rather than buying it, dead, from Safeway.
Last year, I wrote a piece comparing the fanatical way Twitter was
treated in the news in 2011 with the fanatical way the telephone was
treated in the news more than a century ago. Are we doomed to become
hysterical doomsayers with every technological advance, to cower in
front of fire before realizing that we could use it to cook our bison?
Or, as Lindy West noted in Jezebel, in response to Newsweek’s
article, “I’m pretty sure this is the 76th draft of this study, and
the original was called ‘The Internet Is Like Tincture of Laudanum.’ ”
Again and again, we confuse technology with human behavior.
The Newsweek article opened with recounting the story of Jason
Russell, the “Kony 2012” filmmaker who famously had a breakdown after
his video about the Ugandan dictator went viral. But Russell wasn’t
suffering from the Internet, he was suffering from sudden fame.
In 2011, an apocalyptic study declared that Facebook was making us
depressed: The onslaught of peppy, braggy, barfy status updates could
lead users to believe everyone else was happier than they were. But
what’s depressing isn’t Facebook — it’s when acquaintances act barfy.
That’s not unique to the online world, as anyone who has ever opened a
Christmas letter, attended a reunion or shmoozed at a networking event
All of which isn’t to say that the Internet hasn’t accelerated,
enhanced or magnified certain human behaviors. To claim that would be
silly and stupid. But it enhances them the way that eggs and flour
enhance peanut butter in peanut butter cookie batter. You can blend
it, bake it and chemically change it, but the nuts are still there.
(We are the nuts, in case this overwrought baking metaphor has burned
to a crisp. We are the nuts.)
Incidentally, a new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health was
released last week. It found that college students did not seem to
become more depressed after using Facebook. Some of them did appear
depressed, but there was no correlation between their Internet usage
and their sadness.
Why were they depressed? The study didn’t say. Maybe because of
genetics. Maybe because of finals. Maybe because human brains are, and
will continue to be, more complex than we can yet understand, even
with the aid of all the technology in the world.
The subject is open to many views. What are yours? Over to you.
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