Critics have been attacking new platforms since Plato. But is mobile more harmful than any other media?
As surely as technology evolves, technological change has
always provoked complaints about its effects on human beings — and mobile devices are no exception. In a New York Times column titled “The Twitter Trap,” published in May 2011, Bill
Keller noted the latest mobile developments before confessing that “my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially
human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community …”
More recently, in another essay in the same newspaper, titled “The Flight from Conversation,” M.I.T. psychology professor Sherry Turkle similarly asserted that the new technology brings with it some kind of loss, a metaphysical price to be paid: “We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.”
But these concerns about media technology — that it will make us incoherent and superficial — are nothing new.
Take the examples cited by Turkle at the beginning of her column: “At home, families sit together, texting and reading email. At work, executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates. My students tell me about an important new skill: It involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it’s hard, but it can be done.”
This damning paragraph can easily be rewritten, to similar effect, with the substitution of “analog” technologies or no technology at all: “At home, families sit together, [watching TV]. At work, executives [doodle] during board meetings. We [pass notes] during classes and [check stock prices on CNBC] when we’re on dates. My students tell me about an important new skill: It involves [appearing to listen to someone while you read the newspaper]; it’s hard, but it can be done.”
Indeed, the handwringing over mobile’s impact on the human psyche is merely the latest bout of our recurring, collective anxiety about our reliance on communications technology — a sense of unease that the way we communicate has some pernicious, hidden impact on our minds and souls. Essentially we fear that emphasizing one form of communication (textual, visual, auditory) causes our other faculties to atrophy, warping and diminishing our ability to think. But this supposed relationship between communication and cognition — which can be traced all the way back to ancient times, and reemerges with every new technology — is probably overstated.
In retrospect, the first device that fit our modern conception of mobile technology was probably the Sony Walkman, introduced in 1979, and the various knockoffs it inspired in following years. Critics immediately became fixated on the idea that people listening to the device were “cut off” from the world around them and isolating themselves in an antisocial way. Others said the Walkman would shorten attention spans by allowing young people to switch back and forth between external stimuli and music; educators recommended that parents not allow children to listen to a Walkman while doing their homework, and the device was banned (mostly unsuccessfully) by many public schools.
As with other new communication technologies, of course, the Walkman was also said to be contributing to the decline of culture and society. In his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, conservative cultural critic Allan Bloom complained that the archetype of the modern era was “a 13-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching TV.” Indeed, devices like the Walkman were atomizing American public life and undermining the influence of high culture: “As long as he has the Walkman on, he cannot hear what the Great Tradition has to say. And after its prolonged use, after he takes it off, he finds he is deaf.” At the extreme, the device became a symbol of nihilism: Jean Baudrillard wrote that “nothing evokes the end of the world more than a man running straight ahead on a beach, swathed in the sounds of his Walkman …”
Before the Walkman, the main object of criticism was television, which was blamed, among other things, for shortening attention spans, hobbling our linguistic abilities, and, in essence, making us stupid. In this view, rational, language-based thought was being undermined by the simple, seductive pull of visual perception. Neil Postman, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, wrote that “excessive immersion in nonlinguistic, analogic symbols will have the effect of amplifying the functions of the right hemisphere while inhibiting the functions of the left … such people would be strong on intuition and feeling, but weak on reflection and analysis … in other words, people whose state of mind is somewhat analogous to that of a modern-day baboon.”
Postman further warned that TV, as a primarily visual medium, “stresses the fragmented and discrete nature of events, and, indeed, is structurally unable to organize them into coherent themes and principles.” At a more basic level, the regular interruption of TV by advertising was said to be “shortening attention spans,” supposedly resulting in children being unable to learn or even carry out simple tasks. Complaints about the alleged coarsening effect of violent and sensational TV content are so well known they don’t need to be repeated here.
TV’s heavily visual aspect was condemned as incompatible with rational, analytical thought — but many of the same basic critiques were previously levied against a non-visual medium: radio. In 1927, H.G. Wells wrote that radio was fit only for “very sedentary persons living in badly lighted houses or otherwise unable to read … and who have no capacity for thought or conversation.” Radio was widely condemned as a “dangerous rival” to reading, which would encourage illiteracy and cause attention spans to shrink, thanks to the prevalence of 15-minute-long radio dramas and even shorter pieces of music. By encouraging people to spend time alone or silently with others, the British critic F.R. Leavis also said radio was causing people to lose touch with the art of conversation (this was in addition to the usual battery of complaints that radio, like movies before and TV after, was undermining society with violent, vulgar content).
Before radio, of course, came movies — first silent, then “talkies,” but always a visual medium. Here, again, cultural critics remarked on the power of sight, sound and motion relative to other media. In Our Movie Made Children, a much-cited study published in 1935, Henry James Forman wrote: “Pictures, as the investigators point out, have two means of reaching the human consciousness, both the visual and the auditory. How indirect, by comparison, is the medium of books!”
As the title of Forman’s book indicates, critics were particularly concerned with the impact of movies on children, which supposedly extended to physiological phenomena including disturbed sleep patterns and insomnia, resulting, in turn, in “emotional instability … similar to the effects produced by alcohol, cocaine, heroin, hashish and other narcotics …” Furthermore, “sleep impairment following the movies” was held to be “detrimental to health and growth.” Again, these cognitive and psychological effects were attributed to movies without reference to their content, which was separately (and vociferously) criticized for undermining the fundamental values of civilization.
Based on these complaints about modern media, we might assume (as many of critics still do) that textual communication is the gold standard — the original medium, perfectly attuned to the human mind. But in the 19th century. the same kind of accusations were levied against the medium which is venerated today as the most sober and substantial of them all: newspapers. In 1865, E.L. Godkin, the famed editor of The Nation and the New York Evening Post, condemned popular newspapers for their impact on ordinary Americans: “They like ‘light stories,’ ‘pleasing anecdotes,’ and would like to have all the great questions of the time disposed of in at most half a column … [This] … gives one a tolerably fair idea of the influence of the daily press upon them.”
In 1890, Godkin was still fulminating against popular newspapers for their supposed effects on the American attention span: “Now, nothing can be more damaging to the habit of continuous attention than newspaper-reading … it never requires the mind to be fixed on any topic for more than three or four minutes, and … every topic furnishes a complete change of scene. The result for the habitual newspaper-reader is a mental desultoriness, which ends by making a book on any one subject more or less repulsive.”
The perfect form of communication, to Godkin, was books — thoughtful, weighty, requiring long periods of concentration. And yet books themselves have been criticized for their supposedly negative effect on the human mind. No less an authority than Plato, the original social conservative, complained (through his protagonist Socrates) that reading caused the faculty of memory to atrophy, and gave readers the false impression they are learning when in fact true knowledge existed only in the soul. In Plato’s dialogue titled Phaedrus, Socrates tells the story of the ancient Egyptian inventor of writing, whose invention was criticized by the pharaoh: “… it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: They will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing … you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.”
So how real is the supposed impact of communications technology on human beings? It seems strange to have to defend literacy again Plato (who was, of course, fully aware of the irony involved in writing a critique of writing). While reading and writing may indeed lead us to neglect our memory, only a small group of people were ever able to cultivate massive memories in the first place (e.g., medieval monks who built “memory palaces” full of thousands of texts). By contrast, reading and writing allow vastly more people to participate in the life of the mind and the world around them. This broadening of the information franchise has spurred endless technological, social and economic development, while humanity has accumulated a vast store of collective knowledge in libraries and now the Internet.
Beginning in the 18th century, popular newspapers — highbrow and lowbrow alike — helped disseminate important, relevant information (alongside sensational trash) to large numbers of people. They were key in the development of democratic institutions from the Revolutionary period onward, and have also left behind a massive archive of text and images that continues to be useful. While Godkin condemned popular newspapers after the U.S. Civil War for their inaccurate sensationalism, the most popular newspaper during the conflict, Harper’s Weekly, was widely valued at the time for its evenhandedness, and today is an invaluable resource for historians and other scholars. Sensational newspapers can still contribute to the national conversation, as the National Enquirer demonstrated with its reporting on the John Edwards affair.
Whatever concerns parents, educators and doctors may have had about movies from the 1930s onward, they have been viewed by most of the U.S. population, including children, ever since without producing any readily apparent ill effects. It’s true children have nightmares following some kinds of movies, and parents have to be vigilant about the content their children see, but a roundup of recent research on the relationship between media exposure and childhood sleep disorders (a prime concern about movies in the 1930s) by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded: “One of the striking insights to emerge … is that there is nothing inherent in most media use that would make it damaging for sleep.”
Of course, the fears about radio promoting illiteracy among children and young adults turned out to be wholly unfounded: From 1910 to 1950 — radio’s golden age — the U.S. literacy rate actually increased from 92 percent to 97 percent, with children leading the way. Interestingly radio is now seen as a valuable tool for spreading literacy in developing countries with little or no public education: In Afghanistan, the U.S. Army has been distributing hand-crank radios with literacy workbooks to villagers so they can learn to read at home (part of a broader strategy to undermine the Taliban’s control of news and opinion).
Television, the bogeyman of cultural critics during the second half of the 20th century, is a somewhat easier target, as increased TV viewing has, in fact, been correlated with shorter attention spans in some children. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children under age 2, and no more than two hours of quality programming for older kids.)
But as with other media, this negative impact probably has more to do with the type of content viewed than anything intrinsic to the medium itself. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital who led several much-cited studies, commented in 2011: “Most parents worry too much about how much TV their children watch and not enough about what they watch. It’s not about turning the TV off. It’s about changing the channel.” As for TV’s broad impact, there are few reliable longitudinal studies over time, but what little evidence there is suggests average attention spans today are roughly the same — about 10 minutes for 4-year-olds, 20 minutes for adults — as they were in the first half of the 20th century.
Returning to the present, it’s true the latest wave of mobile media technology differs from previous waves in its interactivity: We aren’t just reading text or watching video or listening to music, but sending text messages, playing mobile games, sharing video with friends, and the like. But it’s not clear why active, “lean-forward” behavior would be any more damaging to our cognitive abilities or attention spans than earlier media: Indeed, traditional media like movies, radio, and TV were often criticized for encouraging passive consumption, which may be less when prevalent when there are interactive options offered by the same device.
No doubt, certain activities — texting while driving, “sexting,” compulsive socializing, addictive consumption of any kind of media — can be dangerous and bad for your health. It was never a good idea to let kids watch TV all day long before, and it’s not a good idea to let them, say, watch mobile video or play mobile games or goof off on Facebook all day long now. Other (adult) behaviors are just rude: People should consider turning off their mobile devices so they don’t get sucked into reading the news or texting at dinner. But as in previous eras, it would be foolish and irresponsible to blame technology for the uses we make of it.