Is the brain wired for the Crackberry?

Action Speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 13, 2010


Providence cultural center AS220's panel discussion series Action Speaks! marches on with a chat about the transformative impact the cell phone.

Tool of liberation or digital jail cell?

Moderator Marc Levitt will ponder that question and more with three guests: professor Sharon Kleinman of Quinnipiac College, author of Displacing Place: Mobile Communication in the Twenty-first Century; social media activist Linda Raftree; and William Powers, a former Washington Post scribe and author of Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.

The chat, free and open to the public, is set for Wednesday, October 20 from 5:30 to 7 pm at AS220, 115 Empire Street.

The Phoenix caught up with Powers for a Q&A over email in advance of the discussion. His book dabbles in neuroscience's explanations for why we can't help but steal glances at the Crackberry every 30 seconds. And it considers the benefits of stepping away from the digital onslaught from time to time.

HOW HAS EVOLUTION PROGRAMMED US TO INCESSANTLY CHECK OUR CELL PHONES? The theory is that we're addicted to checking our phones because our brains are wired to seek out novelty — changes, new stimuli — in our environment. When we pay attention to something new, such as an incoming call or text, our brains apparently give us a biochemical "reward" by releasing dopamine. Some scientists believe this is a bequest from our prehistoric ancestors whose survival in the wild depended on their ability to perceive threats (such as predators) and opportunities (a meal) in their immediate surroundings.

It's an appealing theory because it helps explain why the need to check feels so irresistible. But to me, far more important than where the drive came from a million years ago is how to deal with it today. Should you just give in and spend the whole day checking, checking, checking? I argue that when we live that way, we miss out on a lot of great stuff in life.

WHAT, IF ANYTHING, SEPARATES OUR CONCERNS OVER THE BOMBARDMENTS OF THE DIGITAL AGE WITH WORRIES ABOUT THE ADVENT OF THE WRITTEN WORD OR THE PRINTING PRESS? Amazingly enough, when the written word began to take hold in ancient Greece around the 5th-century B.C., some people worried that it would destroy our ability to think effectively and creatively. Socrates viewed written language as a threat to wisdom, which he felt could only be arrived at through conversation. Similarly, when the printing press took off in the late 15th century, there were all kinds of doubters and critics. One Italian scholar said he'd had high hopes for the printed book but it had turned out to be a total disaster, a way of "spreading falsehoods over the whole world."

The same cycle occurs every time a powerful new technology appears: the optimists respond with enthusiasm and hope, and the pessimists are all doom and gloom. It's happening again today, and it closely resembles earlier times. Today, when neuroscience is such a popular topic, there's more focus on how technology affects the brain. Otherwise, the basic parameters of the discussion are the same.

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  Topics: This Just In , William Powers, AS220, AS220,  More more >
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