Impact of the Internet on Thinking
| September 24, 2010 • Volume 20, Issue 33
| Is the Web changing the way we think?
By Alan Greenblatt
OverviewRecently at lunch, Eric Wohlschlegel announced, “I have to take a BlackBerry pause.”Plenty of people interrupt social and business meetings to check messages on their mobile devices. There was a time just a few years ago, Wohlschlegel recalls, when his employer didn't require him to have a BlackBerry. Now, as a spokesman for the influential American Petroleum Institute, Wohlschlegel is expected to be in constant contact with the world at large, fielding some 200 work e-mails a day.He doesn't have the option of tuning them out. But when circumstances forced him to, he had a hard time adjusting. His BlackBerry stopped working at just the same time that his home computer crashed, leaving him disconnected, and disoriented.“You always fantasize about that one day when you sit back and go golfing,” he says. “But then when you have a moment without being connected, you realize how significant it is and what you're missing.”Meanwhile, Wohlschlegel kept checking the empty holster on his hip, out of habit. Many people describe feeling “phantom vibrations” signaling incoming messages after their smartphones have gone bust.People today are more connected than ever, visiting social-media sites, checking headlines on the Web and texting, e-mailing and instant-messaging. The Internet has become the focus of many people's lives — the place where they socialize, shop, do their work and view and listen to entertainment. Mobile phones, with their instant-messaging, Web-surfing and online-shopping capabilities, can link people to the Internet and to each other at just about anytime, anywhere. “Texting and IMing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort,” a student wrote. Some researchers worry the Internet might even be addictive like substances such as alcohol and tobacco. (AFP/Getty Images/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi)
| “Texting and IMing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort,” a University of Maryland student wrote after being asked to refrain from using electronic media for a day. “When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life.”There's no question that Americans are engaging more than ever with electronic media. According to a Ball State University study conducted last year, most Americans spent at least 8.5 hours per day looking at screens — a television, computer monitor or mobile phone, and frequently two or three at once. Television viewing has not gone down in the Age of the Internet — but reading printed works has.Near-constant use of the Internet can not only be habit forming but also something that comes to be expected by others. Because text-messaging and Twitter allow people to respond instantly, friends may expect you to respond instantly. Noting that one teen in California had sent 300,000 texts in a month, William Powers writes in Hamlet's BlackBerry, his 2010 book about the impact of technology on contemporary life, “The goal is no longer to be ‘in touch,’ but to erase the possibility of ever being out of touch.”Use of the Internet and handheld devices while driving can also be deadly, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned Sept. 21, calling for a crackdown on distracted driving. More than 5,000 deaths and nearly half a million accidents were caused last year by distracted driving, he said, citing National Highway Safety Administration figures. Automakers have supported bans on text-messaging and using handheld cell phones while driving, but they have introduced other distractions, he said. “In recent days and weeks, we've seen news stories about carmakers adding technology in vehicles that lets drivers update Facebook, surf the Web or do any number of other things instead of driving safely,” he said.Technology is also creating expectations that people will be available to work at virtually any time of the night or...
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