Published: June 8, 2010
Just how adaptable are humans? That is the question underlying pervasive worries about the impact of modern technology, especially the boom in the use of personal laptops and hand-held devices, like the iPad and smartphones. Are we becoming skilled multitaskers? Or are we sacrificing our attention to long-term goals for the more primitive gratification of skimming tweets and e-mail messages? There are indeed some gloomy answers to these questions, the kind described in Matt Richtel’s article about the Campbell family in The Times on Monday.
That was a portrait of a family utterly distracted by their devices — not surprisingly so, since the family income derives from the software industry. But we think there’s a flip side to the story of technological harm. In fact, the story may be mostly flip side. Some statistics show a threefold increase in the consumption of “media” between 1996 and 2008. It’s hard to be happy if that means mostly watching “Lost” on a miniature screen.
But “media” in this sense means everything that flows through your desktop, laptop or smartphone. It has an addictive quality, in part because it reinforces deeply human traits — above all, a desire for social connection and mental stimulus. The electronic informational environment we live in is hardly passive. It is responsive, playful, and — yes — sometimes inane and trivial, not unlike our social discourse in the real world, including the world of families.
Yet when have humans ever had more immediate access to solid information? The Web may be a whirlpool of myth and misinformation, but it has also become a global library of fact and data. How we use it to enrich our lives — including our social lives — is an ongoing experiment in adaptation.
It’s extraordinary, too, how often our electronic lives enrich the lives we worry about losing. Yes, there are hikers distracted by their smartphones. But there are also birders, old and new, being guided outdoors by smartphone applications like BirdsEye, which puts a birder’s encyclopedia — complete with songs and location-based data — in their pockets. Like most technologies, our new electronic digisphere is made up of good and bad. How we use it is, as always, up to us.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on June 9, 2010, on page A24 of the New York edition.