Are we getting more stupid or more smart?

According to an article by Bryan Appelyard in this week’s Sunday Times, “the digital age is destroying us by ruining our ability to concentrate.” Appelyard generalises from his own experience and quotes from a much more interesting essay by Nicholas Carr. It seems to be part of an emerging debate about the way in which technology is not only changing our lives for the worse, it’s also changing the way we think and the way our brains work. Similarly this interview with Prof Susan Greenfield who seems to go further. She argues that the over stimulation of children by online activity, screen-based interactions, games and television, makes it hard not only to learn to concentrate, but to learn at all. All this immediate and instant gratification with technology  prevents the proper development of neural networks and the mind, it’s argued. On the other side of the fence are arguments such as Steven Berlin Johnson‘s “Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.

Hmm… I recognise some of the symptoms Appleyard describes but I’m not convinced that it’s technology that’s doing the ‘damage.’ I think it’s more a question of increased choice. Each minute and each activity brings its own set of increasingly available alternatives. It’s a bit cliched but perhaps it just requires the tactics of discipline.  Ferinstance, I now load my email client and check email three or four times a day (is this too much?) rather than keeping it on all the time and feeling  a pressure to respond to someone else’s agenda. I don’t think I’ve lost the ability to concentrate either, why this week I’ve even re-read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (even better second time around) – because  I wanted too. I think that’s the key – choice.