The Herald Bulletin

June 26, 2013

Primus Mootry: Information overload leads to focus on the inane, irrelevant

By Primus Mootry
For The Herald Bulletin

— Brain Drain: Is modern media making us dumber?

A couple of weeks ago, I rather playfully wrote about multitasking, our new habit of doing more than one thing at the same time. In our fast-moving world, a primary contributor to our felt need to simultaneously manage various tasks is largely a by-product of modern media, particularly television and the Internet.

The impact of multitasking, however, is not child’s play. It is a manifestation of powerful, commercially driven communication technologies that, although it may sound counter-intuitive, inhibit meaningful communication, foster isolation, and, arguably, make us dumber. How, you may wonder, can this be

After all, never before have people had so much access to such a wide variety of information literally at the tip of their fingers. However, it is this very fact — the flood of information available to us — that is negatively affecting how we think.

Years ago, it was called “information overload.” Although this term is rarely used these days, it is entirely appropriate. We have so much information available to us that our brains cannot possibly process it. For over half a millennium, since the invention of the printing press, the written word — books, for example — have been the primary means of recording, storing and retrieving information. Now, however, it’s the screen

I am reminded of a book written some decades ago called “The Medium is the Message,” by Marshall McLuhan. Although McLuhan had both ardent admirers and harsh critics, his argument that electronic media, specifically television, was a threat to literacy is still quite valid

The argument, in a nutshell, is that it is not what is on television that is important, but the fact that you have one (probably more today!) in your house. To put a more current spin on it, the whole business of PG, PG-14, and other such ratings suggests that television content is more important than television as a new technology.

The technology itself, not the programs, changed the way millions of people gathered and interpreted information. It moved the more or less objective, active process of reading (critical thinking) to the more passive process of simply subjective, uncritical believing.

Today, most observers of modern media and its impact on the mind tend to agree with McLuhan. Of course, McLuhan’s ideas have taken on greater relevancy with the advent and explosion of computer technologies that have brought us the Internet.

In a new book called “The Shallows,” the widely renowned writer and media critic, Nicholas Carr, says: “After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges. Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel. ... The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted.”

He goes on to say: “[The Net] is becoming our typewriter and our printing press, our map and our clock, our calculator and our telephone, our post office and our library, our radio and our TV. ... We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.”

With regard to the notion of rerouting the brain, Carr and others note that our increased dependence on electronic media actually causes neurological changes in brain function. We become fascinated by isolated facts that are, for the most part, irrelevant.

We learn in bits and pieces. Rather than read deeply, we skim. We gather information for an immediate purpose, then just as immediately, forget it. Our marvelous brain neurologically re-configures itself to manage the inane.

Beyond this, it is argued that we lose our ability for concentration, contemplation, imagination, problem-solving, critical thinking, and empathy. We’re too busy multitasking. As Clifford Nass writes, “multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”

It is a sad irony that today’s powerful communications technologies, holding so much information and so much promise, rather than bringing us together, appear to be driving us apart. Instead of bringing us more fully into enlightened conversation, we are being isolated and fascinated with trivia.

It is unclear to me whether or not, in the future, these changes will prove to be beneficial to mankind. It is possible. Right now, however, it doesn’t seem likely. A tsunamic brain drain is underway, and it appears there is no way to stop it. Are we getting smarter and dumber at the same time?

Have a nice day.

Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.