The ubiquitous use of the Internet in law school classrooms has become something of a byword. If you want to know when a law student is in class, check and see what time she last updated her Facebook profile or notice when he is most often on Gmail chat. Yep, that would be when they have class. There was a rumor last fall that the faculty at Boalt was going to ban the use of wireless connections in classrooms. The idea was probably abandoned not so much because it was a bad idea as because it was unenforceable and perhaps just too paternalistic. After all, we are all adults here, graduate students who can, if we so choose, spend our tuition money to surf the Net while listening to distinguished professors lecture about the law. What a life we lead.
I am told by my undergraduate friends that the situation is not quite so exaggerated in their classrooms, but I know that the problem grows worse every year. A professor from my own undergraduate days recently lamented this situation in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education. There, Mark Edmundson pontificated that the spread of the Internet has thinned his students’ lives, their relationships, and their studies. It is, he writes, a “multiplier of the possible.” In the article, Professor Edmundson relates an “experiment” he performed with one class of laptop-laden students:
I asked the group, “How many places were you simultaneously yesterday — at the most?” Suppose you were chatting on your cellphone, partially watching a movie in one corner of the computer screen, instant messaging with three people (a modest number), and glancing occasionally at the text for some other course than ours — grazing, maybe, in Samuelson’s Economics rather than diving deep into Thoreau’s “Economy” — and then, also, tossing the occasional word to your roommate? Well, that would be seven, seven places at once. Some students — with a little high-spirited hyperbole thrown in, no doubt — got into double digits. Of course it wouldn’t take the Dalai Lama or Thoreau to assure them that anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular — not present, not here now. Be everywhere now — that’s what the current technology invites, and that’s what my students aspire to do.
Yes, those are the students on the Internet during class: everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Gmail chatting with four friends, playing Scrabulous, skimming the New York Times or a favorite blog, and occasionally even switching back to Word to take down something important that the professor just said—but only because it might be on the final and not because it was truly an interesting point. Indeed, the moment the lecture tips toward a discussion or a question of policy arises, the notes are minimized and up comes Facebook. As one of the last holdouts from the pen-and-paper era, I find the frenetic pace of their screen-minimizing and their Gmail chatting to be dizzying, even from a distance. What is the effect of all this multitasking?
According to recent studies reported by Walter Kirn in the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic, multitasking is detrimental to learning and increases stress. In one study he cites, researchers asked two groups of participants to sort cards: one group in silence and one group with the simultaneous task of identifying musical tones. Both groups performed comparably in the sorting exercise, but the group that was multitasking could not remember what it was they had actually been sorting. Kirn reports:
Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.
Or take the 2005 study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, which found: “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” Christine Rosen reports on this and other recent studies about the effects of multitasking in an article from the Spring 2008 issue of The New Atlantis. One analyst she cites calculated that the cumulative effect of e-mail and phone call disruptions costs the American economy $650 billion annually.
Finally, in the cover story from the July/August issue of The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr decries the Internet’s deleterious effects on reading, writing, and even thinking. Carr begins by invoking Marshall McLuhan, that sage of media studies who famously argued that “the medium is the message” and that media actually shape the way we think. As anecdotal evidence of how this theory applies to the Internet Age, Carr cites his own recently acquired difficulty with reading long texts and similar experiences chronicled by others. But Carr thinks that the trouble goes beyond an inability to read more than three or four paragraphs without losing his focus: he submits that the way he thinks has even changed.
This suggestion is not novel to the 21st century. As Carr notes, contemporaries of Friedrich Nietzsche observed how the philosopher’s style changed when he began to write using a typewriter. Nietzsche himself agreed that “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
Although the science behind this proposition is still in its infancy, Carr reports that developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf has observed that reading online is typically a different mental process than reading a book. She thinks that the manner of reading on the Internet is reducing our capacity for what she calls “deep reading,” which is connected to deep thinking. In other words, the practice of reading online is turning us into shallow thinkers, incapable of forming complex connections, and easily distracted. We become, instead, “mere decoders of information.”
If these thoughts do not disturb you, they should. For a vivid picture of where our society is headed, just consider Wall·E, the latest Pixar film. According to a recent interview with World Magazine, Director Andrew Stanton’s dystopic vision lies not so much in the film’s environmental apocalypticism as in the shallowness of its human relationships. Stanton remarked: “[W]hat really interested me was the idea of the most human thing in the universe being a machine because it has more interest in finding out what the point of living is than actual people.” Indeed, the humans onboard the spaceship Axiom have ceased to interface with each other, instead wiling away their days absorbed in a mélange of entertainment and communication devices including instruments resembling mobile phones and laptops. They can talk to each other on the phone but not in person. These are Professor Edmundson’s shallow relationships writ large.
Of course, Wall·E is just fiction and things are not quite so bad yet in reality. Quite. But how many times have you been in a restaurant and seen two people dining together, one talking on her cell phone? Or how often have you tried to have a conversation with someone only to find him distracted with e-mail or texting? Or how often do you “chat” with multiple people at the same time in AIM or Gmail chat?
Shallow relationships, atrophied memories, disrupted productivity. These are symptoms from the dark side of our technological revolution. Sure, the technology is not all bad, and we cannot blame our multitasking on the tools that enable it. In fact, we would be remiss if we did so because we would be overlooking larger cultural issues that are at work. Nevertheless, as has often been noted, an important first step on the road to recovery is to recognize that we have a problem. And we do have a problem.