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Can Robert Johnson bring more blacks online?
Black Entertainment Television's founder is launching a $35 million African-American portal site. Will it help mend the digital divide?

By Raymond Rawlinson
[10/06/99]

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Why Microsoft doesn't rule the Net
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[09/30/99]


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By Janelle Brown
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Illustration by Octavio Diaz







IS TECHNOLOGY UNPLUGGING OUR
M I N D S ?

We may be able to multitask our way through life -- but at what cost to our humanity? Three new books examine the world technology begat.

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By Janelle Brown

Oct. 7, 1999 | In the course of conceiving this paragraph, I checked my e-mail three times and fired off four responses. I took a phone call, visited a few Web sites -- simultaneously, I might add, on two computers -- and perused some posts on an online bulletin board. I snuck a peek at the latest news wires, gobbled some take-out Thai food, read a press release. I did this all while switching back and forth between two Internet radio stations, which I listened to through headphones.

Some would call this multitasking; my editor would probably call it procrastination. But for others, it's a sign of the continuing demise of intelligent life on earth. Is this glut of information, technology, advertising -- omnipresent, at our fingertips, in real-time, all the time -- somehow frying our collective synapses? Instead of sparking a global renaissance of thought and culture, is the world of zippy information turning us into automatons compelled to plug in but unable to engage in complex ideas?



Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything

by James Gleick Pantheon Books 324 pages

Buy Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything by James Gleick


Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say

by Douglas Rushkoff Riverhead Books 336 pages

Buy Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say by Douglas Rushkoff


The End of Patience: Cautionary Notes on the Information Revolution

by David Shenk Indiana University Press 160 pages

Buy The End of Patience: Cautionary Notes on the Information Revolution by David Shenk


Technology is making our world a better place: That's the message being drummed into our heads by countless magazine cover features, television advertisements and latest-greatest Web sites. Despite the occasional naysayer -- hysterics who believe, post-Columbine, that access to information and technology is corrupting our youth -- the consensus has been that thanks to technology we are all becoming more informed, accessible, connected. E-mail your long-lost grandma; start an e-commerce company; buy a Beanie Baby from a paraplegic in Singapore; make a friend; make a fortune -- these are the promises of technology. But some observers have begun to question that rosy picture, and are engendering a mini-backlash to our collective pro-technology brainwashing.

In the last month, three new books were published -- "Faster" by James Gleick, "Coercion" by Douglas Rushkoff and "The End of Patience" by David Shenk -- which purport to expose the dark underbelly of technology. Less doom-and-gloom neo-Luddites than "enlightened skeptics" (as Shenk's jacket-flap puts it), Gleick, Rushkoff and Shenk examine how the information overload is affecting us, changing our lives and rewiring our brains.

Yes, we may be able to multitask our way through life -- but what is this doing to our souls? Is technology the Frankenstein of our generation, the beautiful creation that is misfiring -- even though we don't want to admit it?

The answer, at least according to these three, is a reluctant yes. "When we do adjust to high-stim, we make significant intellectual sacrifices," observes David Shenk, in "The End of Patience: Cautionary Notes on the Information Revolution." "There are, no doubt, some intellectual benefits to the intoxicating speed of information and stimulus. And of course it's a wild, fun ride, but the damage is real."

How, though, are we being "damaged?" I grew up with mouse and remote in hand, so it's easy for me to understand what has changed; but it's difficult (and dangerous, perhaps) to equate the changing social and mental equilibrium of progress as "damage" that needs to be fixed. And, sure enough, these authors -- two of whom helped start the "technorealism" movement -- offer no real solutions to the changes they are witnessing; they serve instead as documentarians, sadly shaking their heads in hopes that they can ward off the oncoming storm.

Next page | What price speed?


 
Illustration by Octavio Diaz


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