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Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Are Computers Bad for You?

Having just experienced an enforced 10-day separation from my computer during which I discovered the pleasures of the internet café and silence I have to say I am delighted to be re-united with my trusty 12-inch Apple iBook. This is not because I am a compulsive geek but because that is where all my stuff appears to be these days and being shut out of it was very frustrating. So thank you Micromend of Tottenham Street, W1 for finally putting me out of my misery late yesterday afternoon.

Like most literary folk I have always had some worries about the computer - not the fogeyish ones about the superiority of the fountain-pen but more seriously about what they are doing to the nature of our minds. I mean that the constant state of alert that permanent broadband connections now put us in, with a PING! every so often as a new email arrives, is at war with the more sustained kinds of concentration and long-haul mental engagement that serious reading demands. The screen is always there and the web's culture of links which makes intellectual grasshoppers of us all is an added threat to the long, slow silences which reading needs. What am I saying? Junk all computers? Of course not. They are useful and we can't do without them but I think we need to devise some strategies for keeping them at bay. Like switching them off (or not switching them on) more often and for longer periods. I know that people who study the brain are examining the issue of how our whole mode of thinking may be undergoing a transformation as a result of the formation of young minds especially by the net and it's a very important issue that could determine the whole future of literacy and intellectual culture. Meanwhile, here's an interesting discussion of the issue if you didn't see it.

Me, I'm off to Marrakesh for a week where I don't expect to take my laptop with me nor cross the threshold of an internet hubble-bubble café.


William Palmer said...

Does yours make noises at you, Nick? I think you should keep it in a cage with a cloth over the top, the way that people used to quieten parrots. I know you think I'm an old technophobe but I am seriously worried that the thing will change the way we think - and has already changed the way the young think. The trouble is that it is a 'vertical' medium, rather like rock music, in that information is arranged in a series of static blocks with little or no 'horizontal' narrative - in rock you respond to the succession of thudding noises blocks rather than follow a linear thread as you would in listening to, say, Bach or Charlie Parker. The thudding noises on the Internet are the blocks of knowledge we are stimulated to respond to, hopping from one to another, but not following any real narrative. It literally is an assemblage of 'bits'. It does not force student to think, but tends to be used as a reinforcement of what little they already know, because many will immediately reject whatever seems dull or uniformative in a few seconds. I remember reading that Hitler as a young man used to read books in this way, hopping from politics to religion to philosophy in a very superficial manner, never hesitating or reading deeply but searching only for what would confirm his own very limited intellectual and emotional world.
There is a very interesting chapter in Mann's Oxford Book of Library Research on how computers are 'a wonderful supplement to a real library...but a terrible substitute.' This is because, paradoxically, on the Web knowledge is hidden until and unless you know how to reach it - and the system of keyword searching is extremely limited and inefficient. (I banged on about this in an article in Literary Review in August 2007.)

Computers are wonderful, but the ease with which they seem to open up knowledge is illusory. They provide information and very useful they are too. For that.

Computer Rental Company said...

Interesting article you got here.

I have recently read an article about a study conducted about the harmful effects of computers on physical health. It has been proven that harmful electromagnetic signals do affect human mind negatively.