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iPhone, therefore I am: are gadgets stealing our humanity?

Asher Moses (SMH) | May 31, 2011
Smartphones and other gadgets have literally become extensions of our minds and hold out the tantalising promise of never being bored again, but are we sacrificing too much in the process?

The dangers of our over-reliance on technology was a key theme of the TED talk of corporate anthropologist Genevieve Bell, who argued that technology and constant connectivity offered us the promise of never being bored again.

Bell, who is the director of the Interaction and Experience Research Group at chipmaker Intel, said smartphones meant that we would now never be anywhere without something to do.

“We have introduced a whole lot of devices that prevent us from ever being bored … every physical space we might go is now jammed to the rafters with things demanding our attention,” she said.

“We might have traded boredom for suddenly being overloaded.”

Bell, who has spent her career researching how people interact with technology, advocated bringing “a bit of boredom back into our lives”.

She said being bored was actually a moment where “our brain gets to reset itself”, and while devices worked best when they're constantly connected, human beings worked better when they were intermittently disconnected.

“It's not good that we've got to the point where the demands of our devices exceed our ability to meet them,” she said.

Carr, who has sold many books and won countless speaking engagements after suggesting that Google and technology in general was making us stupid, gave a speech last week to the Seoul Digital Forum in which he reiterated his concerns that technology was affecting the way people think and feel and even the physical makeup of their brains.

Every new technology in history - like the map and the clock - changed the way people think but Carr sees special dangers in the internet.

He got his first PC back in the 1980s and was an avid net user until "a few years ago, I noticed some disturbing changes in the way my mind worked. I was losing the ability to concentrate”.

While the internet has enormous benefits in delivering incredible amounts of information at incredible speed, it's also a distracting and interruption-rich environment.

Carr said it encourages quick shifts in focus - and discourages sustained attention and the ability to think deeply and creatively about one topic and to challenge conventional wisdom.

Popularity-driven search engines, in one of the ironies of an information-rich Internet, worsen the problem by leading everyone to the same sources, he said.

Social networks, while pleasurable and fun, increase distractedness by bombarding users with brief bits of information.

"We take in so much information so quickly that we are in a constant state of cognitive overload," Carr argued.


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