Widowed by my computer

Last May, my laptop died.  Like most young folks, I enjoyed a near-symbiotic relationship with my sleek, textbook-sized laptop.

Last May, my laptop died.  Like most young folks, I enjoyed a near-symbiotic relationship with my sleek, textbook-sized laptop. With my  “externalized brain” I was smarter, more capable, more social and more connected to the events of my city, world, family and more. Or was I?

I was abroad when my computer screen failed me and by the grace—or wrath—of whatever grand omnipotent forces, I was left to suffer the withdrawal caused by computer separation for months and forced to adapt back to an analog life. How would I stay in touch with family? News? Where do they even sell newspapers? What messages on Facebook await me on the web? My mind didn’t ask these questions, but rather lunged at them out of either habit or addiction, I am still not sure which one.

Then I realized what I already knew—that computers had become a major part of my, and practically everyone’s, life.   Without my computer, I was off the grid. Someone might actually have to make a phone call to me or hand write an address to their house, or come with me to buy my concert tickets in person.  Our generation has enjoyed a natural graduation into a digitized life and socially there is something very unnatural about not having a laptop.

Though it seemed necessary at the time for school, for my social life and the gathering of news, in reality I was rarely more productive on my own computer for any of these.  But to not have access, 24 hours a day, to virtually all the information of the world?  We live in America, damn it! And more is better, right?

Personally, the PC has been more a source of distraction than enlightenment or productivity.  Most essays I have started on my computer are rarely finished with time to spare, because of the unfettered marketplace of information constantly available via my computer.  In ancient times I would compare this to trying to complete an assignment in a busy outdoor market while sitting in the middle of the street!  

Ah, but the computer-savvy say that the computer allows for the maximum amount of multitasking.  I agree, but in reality, multitasking is the constant focus and un-focusing of your mental efforts, and like anything, our brains have limits.

I am not alone in this thought: In an interview with PBS’ “Frontline,” Clifford Nass of Stanford University’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) lab found that good multitaskers aren’t exactly completing tasks at high standards.  Scientists found that multitaskers generally don’t provide a high quality of work as a result of “ignoring irrelevant” information to keeping important information organized in their heads.

So do computers really enable us to digest more information better? Nass told “Frontline” that no, it doesn’t. He further noted that he has found exposure to computers can result in worse analytic reasoning. And rightly so!  Does constant access and exposure to the information superhighway—as it used to be called—actually benefit us? Or are we completing more tasks, but poorly?  This is an essential question in an age in which computers are increasingly prevalent in our lives. Yet, this is not a commentary on computers in general, but on the way we use them personally—the constant stare, the unrelenting stream of information that mixes the relevant with the unessential.  

Sometimes, it takes an older voice of wisdom to remind us where we have come from and where we are going. “Do not marry your computer. It is a heartless instrument that never sleeps, do not believe that the book is obsolete,” said literary scholar Annabelle Patterson in her 2003 letter to Yale freshmen. “The miracle of the discovery of the codex, as we call a book with pages, is that, unlike a scroll, which is what the ancients had to manage with, one can turn with ease backwards, forwards and backwards again. The computer returns us to the tyranny of scrolling. Moreover, much on the World Wide Web has been placed there by people no more intelligent than yourself.”  

This is pure and cutting wisdom, and only by necessity have I taken her words to heart.  And so the question is posed: How can we use our computers better? And what are we forgetting in technology’s wake? ?