While healthy debate on both sides is important, it seems that there has been a preponderance of news stories about the negative effects of the digital age, which can include limited attention spans and a lack of critical thinking.
Steven Pinker’s op-ed “Mind Over Mass Media” in Friday’s New York Times was a refreshingly positive look at the effects of technology on critical thought. A Harvard psychology professor and the author of books on neuroscience and psychology (The Stuff of Thought, The Language Instinct), Pinker states that the panic over new technology’s negative effects on brainpower and moral fiber is overstated, and that there may, in fact, be many benefits to the increased use of new media.
I found this statement particularly resonant: “Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive… But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life.” Instead of despairing at the alleged “dumbing down” of a generation raised in the digital age, Pinker accepts the presence of technology and asserts that problems arise only if users fail to manage it.
A clear imperative emerges from these arguments: today’s students face a unique challenge as they learn to manage and critically analyze massive amounts of information in an evolving digital landscape. Hamlet’s BlackBerry, by William Powers, a leading commenter on information culture, is one of the first books to provide a practical philosophy for managing the devices and information outlets that now demand so much of our time and attention.