Creative Commons photo by Dylan Parker, now with added terror.
Having listened to Terry Gross and Fresh Air since Lucy
was in short pants — or, at least, sometimes it seems that way — I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of times I’ve found the show vapid, idiotic, or just off-base. Not a bad average, sure. But yesterday’s show
had me unlacing my shoes.
The guest was Matt Richtel, whose series Your Brain on Computers graces the pages of the New York Times. In this series, which is well-written, well-researched and basically reasonable, Matt Richtel enlists an army of scientists and people walking on treadmills to promulgate the idea that “a little technology is good, but too much technology is bad.”
The talented and persuasive Richtel pushed the same broke-ass idea throughout yesterday’s Fresh Air, with Ms. Gross putting on that ultra-credulous Amazing Discoveries propeller beanie she sometimes wears — I strongly suspect to cover up the “I-don’t-really-give-a-damn” sleepiness in her voice.
If that’s true, I don’t blame her. Because, honestly, we’re still having this discussion? Because, you know, back in the day we had it about comic books.
I’m pretty sure the media has no idea what a “digital device” is — the definition seems to change with the needs of the accusation being made or the research being performed. Generally, as rendered by the media, the term seems to mean smartphones if you’re texting but not cell phones if you’re talking; it means netbooks if you’re on Facebook but not laptops if you’re crunching numbers in a spreadsheet. Text about your work and you’re workaholic but use an ap to manage your household budget and you’re frugal. Text about friends and you’re obsessive or superficial; stare blankly at a redwood tree and suddenly you become some kind of superior being.
This is the Tarzan myth writ large, the Edwardian-era howdah pistol replaced by the Blackberry. The “natural man” doesn’t need any of that shit; he just grabs the most fearsome lion in Africa by the nutsac and bitchslaps him, right?
While I don’t disagree with any single given point in Richtel’s NYT series or the Fresh Air interview, I think the whole debate about whether mobile communications are changing our brain stinks of moral panic. As far as I can tell, it’s gaining critical mass. I might not have gotten so cranky about it if another NPR show I greatly admire, Marketplace, hadn’t sullied my ears yesterday with the promo for today’s piece on the congestion of mobile networks by data as opposed to voice. Good as the story was, the promo leaned heavily on the idea that it’s somehow messed up that more mobile traffic is text, chat, social networking, etc. than voice. The strong implication in the promotion was that people who use mobile networks for data are screwing it up for the “normal” people who “just want to talk on the phone.”