Bandwidth in the Crack Pipe

A few weeks ago, during a discussion of online media habits, my student Linabel asked: “so is social media addictive like nicotine?”  Now The New York Times tells us why this is: a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats (eat apple, run from bear) creates a “dopamine squirt” that researchers say can be addictive.  In other words, the impulse to interrupt any activity to check an incoming email, text message, FB post is, in fact, anthropologically hard-wired.

This particular meme — the neurological dangers of the Internet — is currently tanning itself in the early summer sun, as Nick Carr “(Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) prepares the world for his new book — “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”  The question is not whether people are being distracted by the constant interruptions the Internet enables (they clearly are) but what we should be doing about it.  Ideally, the answer is not reducing all communications to the length of Tweets, since we do still have things to talk about that require a more intense, more extended focus.

16th and 17th century works of theology had thumbnail summaries of the contents of the page in the outer margins, which definitely helped when the content was double predestination.  Maybe the Web 2.0 version is little messages like SMS alerts that interrupt you while you’re reading that recap the previous chapter or contain a short video of the author reminding you of the definition of credit default swaps.  Or how about hyperlinks that don’t actually go anywhere but deliver a pop quiz on the contents of the page?

We are all susceptible to the pleasures of these dopamine squirts.  Short of tying ourselves to the mast like Ulysses to resist the song of the Sirens, we’ll have to come up with some tricks to say focused.  But let’s not get too carried away about the extent of these dangers.  The first edition of Dr. Spock had a chapter on the perils of “too much radio.”


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