This Is Your Brain on Technophobia. Any Questions?

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.”

As I said, I turn up my nose at the epidemic of “media” “stories” and “scientific” “studies” “about” how “mobile devices” “screw up our brain” or just mess with human relationships. It’s nothing more or less than undifferentiated middle-class anxiety. It’s hysteria, pure and simple.

Does that mean that mobile devices don’t screw up our brain? I have no fucking idea. I don’t know with 100% circumstances that there weren’t witches in Salem, either, but it looks goddamned unlikely — and if there were, the witch hunts sure as hell didn’t find them.

The culprit behind this media hysteria, in my estimation, is the same old tired technophobia that crops up whenever the mainstream media starts talking about shit the media overall or — let’s blame the actual culprits, shall we? the reporters — don’t quite “get.” I’m not referring to Richtel himself — he seems to understand technology well enough. But, handed a golden opportunity, he’s been cast in the role of Professor Harold Hill. Starting out as a devotee of technology, he’s now become the prophet of our doom; he wants us to “just turn the darn thing off, just put the darn thing down.”

You know who I’ve heard that kind of sentiment from a hell of a lot in my life? People who think I read too many books. You think they would like to Facebook me?

Now, don’t get me wrong. Far be it from me to claim that all communications technology rocks; frankly, you wanna know what I think about all you freaks updating your Foursquare to let your 2,743 BFFs know you just progressed from the dining room where you were microwaving a bagel-with-American-cheese to the toilet where you’re thinking about maybe going number two but it might just be number one but you’re not sure? I think you’re ou’re all hooked on some freaky corporate crack that’s gonna one day be the death of us all. That’s assuming it doesn’t bankrupt you first with its $98 monthly bill that somehow actually comes out to $237, and its eleventy-seven-year contract that you can feel free to break if you just want to hand AT&T both your kidneys and all your gold fillings.

Wanna talk tech-haters? By the time I’m done with Matt Richtel’s Crackberry he’ll be telling the nice folks in the emergency room he doesn’t know how it got up there, he was on his way to the shower, and he just, you know, slipped and sort of fell on it. I wear my Luddite badge proudly, and you damn kids get the hell of my lawn.

But I don’t like a media feeding frenzy that doesn’t involve high-caliber firearms, and I don’t like the sick nostalgia that seems to dog every media discussion of social change, from the immigration debate to organic produce to Wikipedia to the plagiarism of term papers.

Far worse, and much more dangerous, is the fact that these moral panics put more power, not less, in the hands of big tech companies. They promulgate the idea that obsessive, even pathological behavior is the norm. They assert that everyone, all over the country, is texting while driving because they’ve got so many damn friends — and those of us who don’t — we feel left out and think, “Maybe if I just had an iPhone…”

The sickness, as I see it, is not tech addiction but consumerism. Disagree with me? Then explain why all discussions of technology in the media are governed by the assumption that there’s an “average” consumer — and that said consumer is professional, college-educated, middle-class, and presumably white? And then explain why, if you hang out at the emergency room in East Oakland at three in the morning, you see a hell of a lot more people texting than you’ll ever see at a high-end cafe?

These panicked discussions of technology focus on the behavior of those perceived as having average interests and “typical” behaviors. But this very idea is bankrupt, and assumes a life made fantastically rich by such “average” interests — by implication, said interests being family, God, and middle-of-the-road politics.

But I contain multitudes, bitch. What about the people, like me, for whom learning and reading were agony until computers made it interactive? What about autistic kids who can communicate using computers? What about queer punks in BF Lebanon for whom the Web is a social lifeline? What about the teenage chick who wants to know if she’s pregnant and is too scared to ask her parents, and twenty years ago mighta killed herself? What about the goths in Idaho?

See? I can make up Joe the Plumbers as easily as The New York Times.

And if I could find a scientist to cite neurological studies by way of explaining how these mythic fags in rural Georgia get a dopamine squirt every time they text an Estonian transsexual — well, apparently then I’d have a news story.

Now go Facebook somebody, will you?

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3 comments on “This Is Your Brain on Technophobia. Any Questions?
  1. Pingback: This Is Your Brain on Technophobia. Any Questions? « Skid Roche

  2. Pingback: This Is Your Brain on Technophobia. Any Questions? « Skid Roche

  3. Good insight, so good, I had to use some of the power from this article to back up my research paper on why there is technophobia. Good job.

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