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Step Away From the Smartphone
Interview Transcript

By Allison Arieff

I received an email from a friend today which, he wrote, interrupted "my year-long vow of digital semi-silence as a cellular-and-social-media-free human.” Reflecting on the hours spent on the various gadgets that surround me, I thought, 'Maybe I should take that vow in 2011.'

New York Times reporter Matt Richtel would likely think that was not a bad idea, having spent the past year on the series, Our Brain on Computers, a provocative and often jarring collection of articles exploring how the constant use of our devices impacts not only our behavior but our thought processes and even our neurology. Richtel, who won a Pulitzer in 2009 for his series of the dangers of multitasking while driving, has in the course of his research, spoken to numerous scientists who recognize the merits of technology but not unconditionally. As Richtel explained it to Teri Gross in an interview on Fresh Air earlier this year, "When you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you get a ring — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline," he says. "Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're conditioned by a neurological response: 'Check me check me check me check me.' "

We love our technology but how much is too much? Should we all be taking a “vow of digital semi-silence?” We asked Richtel for some perspective.

GOOD: So how can you tell if you’re on tech overload?

Matt Richtel: The first step is simply to ask yourself the question. The observation that’s been made to me [by many of the experts I’ve interviewed], is that for a long time we’ve embraced technology. Technology = progress = good. Silicon Valley is the white knight of industry, it’s the driver of the new economy. No politician would dare criticize it. Moreover we associate it with productivity. If you were to carry around a television, people would say ‘I don’t think so,’ but if you carry around a device that has productivity aspects to it you and others accept that it is bringing positive attributes to your life.

Experts say, ‘start examining your digital diet.’ [After The New York Times series came out], a lot of people wrote to me to say ‘Once I started to think about it I realized, holy cow, I’m on this a lot and on it more than I’ve fully realized.’ And myself, I’ve been cognitive of this with my two little kids. For me to take my attention off them and on this, it’s astonishing. No one is trying to reach me yet I am compulsively checking. There’s a term for this—intermittent reinforcement—you never know when you’re going to get something good or thrilling so you check all the time.

GOOD: How concerned should we be about the effect technology is having on our kids today?

Richtel: The overriding thing that researchers say to me is that as the brain develops it does so in response to its environment and if the environment is one in which attention is constantly switching then that habit or skill might happen at the expense of developing the grey matter involved in focus. That’s why there are some prominent pediatric folks recommending downtime, not screentime, as a way to develop the parts of the brain that are involved with creativity, analysis, deeper thought. If you’re constantly “on” you might compromise your optimal abilities in that regard. That’s what researchers characterize as nothing short of being very scary. Further, researchers say that parents tend to set up a much bigger example than they realize. When parents are trying to get their kids less engaged with devices, they should look at their own behavior.

This has an impact on adults as well. Plenty of studies show the myth of multitasking. But the difference with adults is that their brains are already developed—scientists say we already have the ability to focus. We’re not habituated form an early age to constantly switch our attention. No doubt this has a material impact on adults—on performance, focus, creativity, deeper thought, how we related to each other interpersonally.

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Allison Arieff
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Digital Semi-Silence

As someone who, when she doesn't write, drives for a living, I can attest to how easy it is to get addicted to modern technology, ie cellphones, etc. While technology can be good in some ways, it's not when it isolates us from the world outside and other people especially. Myself I have a cell but not the latest model with all the text and other capabilities which I don't use often; a bluetooth adapter I only use when I travel and that's on work days. When I'm home all of that technology is switched off except for my computer and that I don't use unless it's to write in response to this article or play video games online. Even then I've been known to go days without even the computer; so in a way I guess that I unofficially observe Digital Semi-silence and it's wonderful.

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How does this change us?

I have wondered for a long time how all this up-to-the-second torrent of information affects our thought processes. Marshall McLuhan may have not known the half of it.

My question is, where are we going to get the people who have to have long attention spans in the future? It takes a lot of study and focus to learn the nuts and bolts of technology, and we seem to be training people to get bored when there is no immediate payoff.

Are we going to end up with two different kinds of people: those who can stay with something like math or engineering long enough to make the world work for those who can think fast and innovate on the fly, but are useless for other applications?

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Much of my writing is for textbook publishers. Over the last two decades, I have seen text get increasingly diminished in all subject areas. The almost constant criticism these days is that a page looks "text heavy" -- that means that you have more than three paragraphs without an intervening chart, subhead, or bullet points. So textbooks are supporting the shorter attention spans and inability to focus.

Rather than trying to solve the problem, they simply are adapting to it. Technology (and this started with TV) is destroying students' abilities to focus. There are schools that aren't even teaching cursive writing any more, because everyone is keyboarding. This is particularly unfortunate because cursive writing is not only a major learning and memory stimulant, but it also triggers the right side of the brain. So kids are being denied a key tool to learning and creativity.

Studies have shown that educational software is only partially effective, because students perceive the applications as games they need to "beat." They aren't really processing the information, just trying to figure out how to "win" the game. In my role as an editor, I've seen another aspect of this, and that's that a lot of writers don't know that copying and pasting off the Internet does not equal writing -- but that's how they're doing reports for school, and they don't know another way to do it, because they have not learned how to synthesize information.

Another aspect of the constant information deluge is that no one is alone with their thoughts anymore. Everyone has something glued to his or her ear at all times, whether it's an MP3 player or a cell phone.

I do hope there will some sort of backlash. I, personally, limit myself to my computer (just a desktop model -- need one to earn a living -- but when I'm on the road, I carry a pad and pen), and a cell phone that does nothing but make phone calls and is only turned on for emergencies. Not only will I avoid the adrenalin surge mentioned in the article, I actually notice when it's a nice day.

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I are a seaman

For a time, I worked on a permanently moored vessel in the Santa Barbara channel. We fell somewhere between the now infamous MMS and the USCG, since we floated like a ship, but processed oil like a mini refinery. The Coast Guard was satisfied that we had enough fire extinguishers and so on, but decided at the last moment that we also needed to be able bodied seamen, in case the thing went adrift, or something

We had about a week before startup, so someone dredged up a computerized training program designed to help you pass the test. You had to know what the red and green lights in a river meant, both heading upstream and down, and what the array of lights displayed on a vessel meant. In daytime, there was a flag equivalent. They can tell you whether they are towing another vessel (don't cut behind them) or be showing the familiar red flag with the diagonal white slash, which means they have divers in the water.

There were dozens of other scenarios, and they came at us like flash cards. Two days later, I went to Long Beach and aced their test. A week later, they only flag I could remember was the one about divers, because you see it on car bumpers, as a sort of reinforcement. All the rest was gone, never to return.

Without repetition, that kind of training is utterly worthless. I wonder if people even remember what they did at the end of the day.