Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The impact of technology

"Totally amazing," she continues. "Best meeting ever. Completely ... structured. You know exactly what's happening all the time. Everybody brings a laptop --"

"Do people even look at one another?"

"Not really. Everything that matters is on your screen."
Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

It's no secret that technology has changed our lives in profound ways. Here are three of them that fall within the scope of this blog.

1. Loss of eye contact.

The character in Robin Sloan's novel is describing a meeting at Google, where she works, but business meetings aren't much different wherever one may work. Everyone brings their phones, tablets or laptops and spends as much time looking at them as at whomever might be speaking. Much the same thing occurs when people gather at restaurants, churches, concerts, parties and picnics.

One of the most memorable passages in the Sebastian Faulks novel A Week in December describes numerous people crossing a bridge in London at the same time, all of them looking at their phones or talking into their phones, none of them seemingly aware of anyone else on the bridge except as an obstacle to get around.

Alternate forms of communication have existed for many years. We've been able to write letters, send telegrams, make phone calls and, more recently, send e-mails. Yet until recently these have always been considered poor substitutes for old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. Yet more and more, even when people are together in the same room, they don't actually look at one another.

2. Our rewired brains

Michael S. Rosenwald, in the Washington Post article I mentioned a couple of days ago, writes that the more time we spend reading on the Web, the more difficulty we have focusing on printed material. That's because on the Web we tend to skim through the material, looking for key words and ideas and ignoring everything else. Then when we try to read a book or a newspaper or magazine article, we may not be able to concentrate on it.

Rosenwald tells of a 31-year-old financial analyst who realized he had missed several keys points in a novel he had been reading. "Then it hit him: He had been scanning for information about one aspect of the book, just as he might scan for one fact on his computer screen, where he spends much of his day.

"'When you try to read a novel,' he said, 'it's almost like were not built to read them anymore, as bad as that sounds.'"

This poses a significant challenge for educators, who in a sense must try to teach their students to read all over again. But the challenge is there for all of us who use computers but also like to read away from a screen. We need to practice so they we do not lose those reading skills we worked so hard to gain back in elementary school.

3. The rights of authors

Last fall Google won dismissal of a lawsuit filed by authors objecting to the company's digitally copying  their books, without permission, for an online library. The decision was a blessing for researchers and other Web users who might like to read portions of these books without actually having to buy the books. Yet authors can be justified in wondering what their copyrights actually mean.

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