October 12th, 2002

lobotomy“We are increasingly entrusting to software the various gathering, sorting and linking operations that we used to perform for ourselves and that were part of the process of thinking about a subject… The shift from book to screen may in its eventual impact on what knowlege is be as transformative as the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics.”

– Sven Birkerts in Sense and Semblance

“Just as calculators can diminish our mathematical capacities, computers can rob us of the ability to synthesize the threads of data into the whole cloth of knowledge.”

– Neurologist Richard Restak, M.D.
in Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot

Restak’s comparison seems invalid. Calculators substitute for (and improve upon) our basic math skills; they’re better at long division than we are. But computers can’t substitute for our knowledge-synthesis skills because they can’t replicate those skills. Humans still need to synthesize knowledge, so why would that ability waste away in the face of computers?

But Restak also points out research suggesting that “expressing one’s opinion on a computer screen engages a different part of the brain than when writing or typing the same sentiment on a piece of paper.”

He theorizes that certain critical faculties arising from the left prefrontal lobe might be weaker when we use a word processor than they become when we write with pen and paper. He says a computer’s bright backlit screen, and its mosaics of images changing at high speeds, excite the visual and emotional portions of the brain. This, Restak says, can explain the lapses in discretion and excesses of emotion that often emerge in workplace e-mails. I’d love to see these theories tested.

We should reflect on our digital creations’ effects on our minds. Many people say that television dumbed down humanity, at least in some ways. What about computers? What can we do to reduce any negative effects that our machines have on human intelligence? What can we do to boost positive effects? Should we bother?

And do we want fries with that?

One Response to “e-Lobotomy?”

  1. comment number 1 by: Anonymous

    Sven Birkerts “Sense and Semblance: the implications of virtuality” is published in e.g.:

    Cox, B. (1998) Literacy is not enough : essays on the importance of reading, Manchester University Press and Book Trust, Manchester.