BOB GARFIELD: Every technical advance has a potential downside. Social networking sites greatly expand our list of contacts, but do they erode friendships in the real world? The Web provides endless information, but does it impair our ability to read long books? Nick Bilton, lead writer for The New York Times Bits Blog, says, no, and no. His new book, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works, says early adopters like him have turned out just fine. He says that fear of the unknown always accompanies the introduction of any new technology, like in the 1800s with the adoption of the – train.
NICK BILTON: There were scientists of the day that said that if we traveled on a train over 20 miles an hour that our bones could explode.
[BOB LAUGHS] The telephone, for example - 1876, front page of The New York Times, and the telephone debuts, and the article, you know, starts off describing what this technology is but then goes into this long list of things that the telephone is going to do negative to society. And one of them is that people will never leave their house again. Not even a year later, out comes the phonograph, and the front-page article in The New York Times about the phonograph says the telephone that was just regarded as the invention of the century is about to be eclipsed by the phonograph, where people can buy bottled quarts of conversations, and they'll never leave their home again. And there’s a great line that says, you know, blessed be the boy of the future who never has to learn how to read.
[BOB LAUGHS] And so, we've gone through these fears just all the way through to today with computers, where we're really afraid that reading on screens is bad for us and that Twitter is going to make us stupid, and along with Google and everything else.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Google making us stupid, that refers, I guess, to Nicholas Carr’s piece in The Atlantic suggesting that Google makes us stupid because it limits our scope. The whole world pays attention only to the first two or three search results and examines them only cursorily, and therefore all of the endless amount of information that is at our fingertips we don't even use.
NICK BILTON: I respect Nicholas Carr and his writing, but I think that he’s coming at this from a different generational point of view. And from myself, who’s grown up on the Internet and grown up with technology, you know, I still read books, and I just wrote one, which is even a longer experience than reading one. And I don't think that these things are going away. And I think it’s also a change in the way stories are told in another respect. We talk about, you know, kids that don't consume long-form content, but they play video games for four hours a day. Isn't that long-form content? Just because they're not sitting down to read War and Peace or a history book about World War II and instead they're playing a video game about World War II, does that mean that one is worse than the other? And I really tried to tackle those questions and look at really what was taking place.
BOB GARFIELD: Another frequent criticism of the online experience, and backed up by no small amount of research, is the notion that multitasking is bad for us because we try to do more than one thing at a time with our various digital tools and all we end up doing is rotating among these tasks, and doing all of them poorly.
NICK BILTON: I think it’s not as black and white as we've been told to believe. And what I found was that nobody agrees on anything when it comes to this multitasking debate, especially when it comes to media multitasking of consuming different types of media simultaneously. If you go back to the research I discuss in the book, this thing called the “cocktail party effect,” of where you can be at a very rowdy cocktail party and you can concentrate on the conversation you’re having, but if somebody yells your name from across the room your brain processes it and you turn your head, and so our brain can handle, you know, processing all this information simultaneously, but there are limits to it. And what I found was that, sure, we'll never be able to text message and drive at the same time, because it’s dangerous, but there’s nothing to say that it’s bad if I'm watching a sports game on my television and Tweeting about it and maybe even looking up some of the scores and statistics simultaneously, because it’s less of a load on our brains as we're actually jumping between the same kind of content.
BOB GARFIELD: Now that I have a cellphone with my address book inside of it, I can't remember anybody’s telephone number. Without my cellphone address book, I'm lost. Once upon a time, I knew dozens of numbers by heart. Does that not mean something?
NICK BILTON: No, because if I took your phone away and said, that’s it, no more phone for Bob, you would easily be able to remember those phone numbers again. It may take a couple of days for you to transition and put your brain back into the right place that it was before, but it doesn't mean that you've rewired your brain in a way that it’s permanently unable to remember phone numbers.
BOB GARFIELD: In your book you talk about the plasticity of the brain, and you make a point of saying that a dissected human brain in 2010 would look exactly the same as a dissected human brain from, you know, let's say 1970, right?
NICK BILTON: Yeah, so I was actually interviewing a very well-known neuroscientist around plasticity, and I said, so have our brains evolved? And he quickly interrupted me and he said, our brains don't evolve in 10 years or 20 years or even a couple of thousand years. Evolution takes place over millions of years with the human brain, right? What we're seeing happening is our brains adapt. Gary Small, who’s at UCLA, he put people in these fMRI brain scanners, and people that were in their 50s and 60s, and he scanned their brain when they were reading a book and he scanned their brain when they were surfing the Web. And he found that the Web was a much more engaging experience for the brain. But what he found was that the people that had never used the Web before, after about seven to ten days their brains adapted and rewired themselves. And it’s the same thing that’s happening when any new technology comes out.
BOB GARFIELD: Nick, thank you very much.
NICK BILTON: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: Nick Bilton is the lead writer for The New York Times Bits Blog and author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works.