The Power of Internet

My teenage daughter informed me the other day that she had lost her cycle key at home and asked me whether I could help locate it – I immediately switched on my laptop and ‘googled’ for it? It has become so instinctive to use google for any search. And, Yes we also have a four year old girl. Another time my wife called out and asked me to check on our little girl in the bedroom – I too sensed that that there must be something wrong because ‘She had not twittered for some time’. Yes, that is an exaggeration but, this is almost what technology seems to have bought this world to!

When we cannot find our cell phones we no longer search as we would for other objects that we lose. We call from another number
and we wait to hear it ring. And this has become so much a second nature that when we misplace something else we hope that we
would be able to find it in the same manner.

There was a time when we could spend some time with a friend or a loved one without being interrupted, but today we have the constant interruption of either a call or a text message. We could rattle off phone numbers from memory, but today we have become so dependent on the numbers stored on our cell phones. Often times we don’t even know the telephone numbers of our immediate family. . . sometimes even our own!

An article asked the following questions:

Is google making me dumb?

Is twitter changing the way I relate?

Has the Internet changed my values?

It may be easy to brush aside these questions and suggest that these are the questions of old-timers. We may be justified in doing so if we have examined it and then found it irrelevant. Look at this limerick, which of course, I found on the internet:

Twitter me this,

Twitter me that

Twitter me news from Iran and Iraq

Twitter me gobs of world events Of Chaos and crisis and lives that are spent

Twitter me rainbows from out in the sea Of dead pirates floating in fresh morning breeze

Twitter me red or Twitter me blue

Twitter me words from the old lady’s shoe

Twitter me stars that fall from the sky Or the ones from boardwalk that just passed me by

Twitter me all day and twitter me all night

I twitter in bed, I twitter at fights, Will someone stop me and give me a rest I started to twitter when I’m having . . .
The end of this poem is a startling way of reminding us how invasive technology has become even in our most intimate moments. Now we have come a long way in technology – things have drastically changed in the last decade or so. If in 1973 a person living in Borivli, Mumbai applied for a phone (landlines were the only phones then) he gots his connection 18 years later. Today phones are available on demand. Many become restless if the new number is not activated within a few minutes or so of paying for it. Similarly in 1980’s when a person needed a computer, she paid a lakh for a systems that occupied a lot of desk space. Oh, and it was such a bother to start the machine. Today a laptop is available for a fraction of that cost and we have much more processing power in the cellphones we carry in our pockets than those larger machines.

Deep Reading. . . What’s that? 

But what are the changes it is bringing into our lives? Reading a book or a longer article was a breeze at one time. My imagination would get immersed into the narrative or the twists and turns of the story and I could spend hours ambling through long narratives. That is not much the case now. I am not able to concentrate after a few pages. Either a text message beeps for my attention or the cell phone rings and I lose the thread of what I had been reading. It takes an effort to get my mind back to the flow of the narrative. Deep reading, that was natural, has now become a special occasion. I can quite easily tell you the reason.

For more than a decade I’ve spent a fair amount of time online. I have searched for hours for? . . . I often don’t know what? Surfing has become a way of life. But, of course a limerick on twitter has become easy to find with a few keystrokes which would earlier have taken days and even maybe weeks of researching. The internet not only became my medium of communication through email, but also became my eyes and ears into the real world. But I have paid the price in terms of becoming a flirty reader.

Thinking too? 

“We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries the reading patterns that we
develop and maintain on the net, which values “efficiency” and “immediacy” most, will weaken our abilities. Deep reading that  emerged when the printing press, made textual work easily available is surely going to take a hit. Our online reading only makes us
‘decoders of information.’ Our ability to use our imagination and make mental links when we read will be surely a casualty in this age.

Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to train our minds to translate symbolic characters we see into language we understand. And the media or technology we use in learning and practicing reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms or languages, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from that found in those of us
whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain. These include those that
concern memory and the areas that interpret visual and audible stimuli. Surely we can expect that the circuits woven by our use of
the Internet will be different from those formed by our reading of books and other printed works. It is not that we read less. We are
actually reading more than we did in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.

A recently published study of online research habits, conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites. One operated by the British Library and the other by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” jumping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would surf out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. The authors of the study report: It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick content.

It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense. No, this is not a moan-page about technology, but how we have become enslaved to it and are being altered in ways we may consciously not want to be. So, can we do something to arrest the
slide into tech-slavery? We need to have some means of regaining deeper and involved reading. We should try to discover means by
which we can concentrate for longer spells of time and even get our imaginations back to work.

How can we go about doing this? For one, it may not be a bad idea to have tech-free days, or even hours daily. Maybe, black-out a
convenient hour where you spend time with a book or even playing with children. No, not some more video games, but playing in the
traditional sense. This will not only help our minds relax and break out of the ‘skimming’ mode, but also may do wonders for our
relationships. The old hymn said ‘Take time to be holy, speak oft with the Lord . . .’ Maybe, we also need to make sure that we are taking time with the Word of God – reading, reflecting, meditating and letting our imaginations go on a journey spurred by the written text. Yes, God wants us to become more like Him and one suspects that ‘deeper’ is how He wants me to go and not ‘faster’ or ‘effective.’




About the Author

Cyril serves with RZIM as the Chief Training Officer. He has worked in the Information Technology and Airline industry prior to this and the family has lived in the cities of Nasik, Delhi and now Mumbai.

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