7: For Better or Worse

The chapter opens with an anecdote of a couple in South Korea, whose baby died of starvation because both parents were obsessively involved in online gaming (EN: similar incidents were reported in the United States and Europe - so this is not an isolated case, or specific to a particular culture), which resulted in a media campaign about the Internet being a kind of addiction that rendered people unable to attend to the tasks and responsibilities of daily life.

The same has been said, to some degree, of mobile computing - that people were unable to exercise adequate self-discipline in the use of their devices, and taht carrying a cell phone was likened to carrying around a crack pipe.

While these claims were largely aggrandized in the media, there is ample evidence in real life of people who are obsessive in their use of technology - people withdraw from social activity in real life, flunk out of school, and lose their jobs because of the amount of time and attention they give to online activities such as gaming and social media. To some degree, this is evident in most individuals who make use of communication technology.

To suggest that technology is a bad influence due to the consequences of the ways in which some individuals use it seems as ludicrous as to say the same thing of food (EN: which, honestly, has been done - consider the persecution of the fast-food industry in recent years) - gluttony and obesity are ultimately caused by the consumption of food, but the mere existence of food does not cause individuals to be irresponsible or gluttonous in their consumption.

Game On

Video games have long been the subject of consternation. In addition to the amount of time that people will spend playing games (originally just teenage boys, but the demographics are spreading), there is concern that the violence and competitive nature are conditioning players to tolerate, if not imitate, unacceptable behavior.

The author cites a study in which university students who didn't won video game consoles were given them, and whose academic performance was degraded because the amount of time they spent playing distracted them from their studies, but found no evidence of any other kind of psychological harm. There are also anthropological studies that contrasted the behavior typical of video gamers to that of sports fans, and found the latter to be more aggressive, socially hostile, and even violent.

While the author is generally dismissive of the level of concern about video games being largely media hype, he does concede that some level of concern might be warranted. Video gaming is a solitary activity, and there is considerable evidence that youth who withdraw to solitary activities fail to develop social skills and may fall into pathological patterns of behavior. The claim that gaming is "addictive" may also have some validity in the psychological sense - players who gain skill at a game feel a sense of accomplishment and reward that causes them to invest even more time in gaming.

(EN: The author does not say as much here, but game design is steeped in the language of behavioral psychology and those who seek to design games play to these very tendencies to make the games they design more interesting or pleasurable. It is not so sinister as psychological manipulation, but pandering to innate tendencies.)

Social Networking

The use of social networking has also been seen to have positive correlation to success. For example, one study that considered the Facebook profiles of freshman students found that the level of activity on a student's Facebook profile, number of friends and volume of posts (other content was also considered but was not statistically significant), had a strong correlation to their likelihood to stay in school. It was also found that students more involved in social networking were more likely to be involved in university-sponsored activities.

There was no overall evidence that interacting online correlated to an increase or decrease of interaction offline, though it was suggested that there was anecdotal evidence of students who felt their connectedness online made them more likely to connect offline (using Facebook as a method to coordinate activities) whereas others felt it made them less likely to connect offline (using Facebook to touch base with friends made it less necessary to do so in person).

The researchers also came to different interpretations as to whether Facebook was a separate "social world" unto itself or a mirror of social interaction in the real world - the degree to which people connect in one medium exclusively or were friends in both.

Finally, it's noted that the findings of the ACU study stood in contrast to similar studies at other institutions, but they are generally regarded as being more valid, as they were based on observations and measurements of actual behavior, rather than a survey of sentiments and self-reported behavior.

Impact on Literacy

The author mentions studies in China and Japan that indicate that younger people are becoming less literate in their native languages because of computers - one Chiense study found that 83% of respondents reported having difficulty reading and writing characters. This seems to be largely a problem for languages that have a great many characters that are pictographic rather than phonetic, for which students type on an English keyboard and the software automatically translates to characters. However, other studies also demonstrate that children have a growing vocabulary, and are able to recognize more words in their phonetic alphabets (Japanese kana or Chinese pinyin characters), they simply weren't learning the pictographs.

While the use of the Internet would seem to give students more practice in written communication in languages that have a phonetic alphabet, given that they gain a great deal of experience typing messages to one another, this has not been found to be the case. Communication via the Internet and mobile channels was seen as being something different than "real" writing - less formal, the rules of spelling and grammar optional, the need to write short sentences and simple words. So rather than improving their communication skills, the "bad habits" of internet communication were carrying over to their academic papers.

While Internet usage has dramatically increased among teenagers, their reading comprehension and writing proficiency has declined during the same time. However, the author does suggest that this is true in the aggregate, but it could be that it is merely moving all students closer to the average - fewer students were excelling, but fewer were also lagging behind as well.

In terms of overall education, there was great emphasis on making Internet access available at all public schools in America, but there has been no evidence this has had much of an effect. Students' test scores were up or down, on various subjects and grade levels, in no discernable pattern or any correlation to the date and degree to which Internet access became available in their schools. However, the availability of the Internet is only one of many factors that might contribute to academic performance, so it cannot be said with much confidence that its influence can be isolated from the other factors.

Students have often expressed that writing to communicate on the Internet and mobile channels isn't "real" writing. They do not put much effort into it - developing proficiency beyond conveying their basic meaning is sufficient and any mistake that causes a miscommunication is easily undone with a follow-up message. They are certainly not engaged in academic discussions that would require them to improve their vocabulary or syntax to better express themselves - it's just a quick note to a casual friend on matters that are entirely trivial.

It's also suggested that educators are no taking much advantage of the Internet as an educational tool. The author lists a number of potential applications that could constitute innovative ways to leverage the medium to complement education - but education seems mired in the "lecture and textbook" model, and the use of the Internet even as a research tool is discouraged, as educator view it as an easy medium to use and not as educational as traditional (published) sources.

Wired Workers

While information technology is often credited for making workers far more productive than in previous years, it also brings with it a significant amount of distractions taht prevent people from getting work done.

Companies express great concern about employees "playing" on the Internet during working hours, and make significant efforts to implement and enforce policies to prevent unproductive use of company resources, but the amount of distraction from unauthorized use pales in comparison to that which is regarded to be proper and productive use of resources.

In terms of personal use of the Internet, one study (Coker) found that people who do surf the office at work spend less than 20% of their time doing so, but are more productive by about 9% than those who do not. The research explains this as a method of restoring concentration after an interruption, and concedes that even companies that allow personal use should do so with some moderation, as about 14% of users in offices with liberal policies spend "more than a normal amount" of working hours in leisure browsing.

The chief cause of distraction is simply other workers: employees spend an inordinate amount of time managing e-mail correspondence and the use of instant messaging is a constant interruption in the workflow. One critic suggests that an employee could get more done in four interrupted hours of work than most do in an entire week - and evidence suggests that this claim may not be an exaggeration.

Studies suggest that the average amount of time a worker can focus on any single task in the contemporary office is limited to eleven minutes. Another study suggests it may be as little as three minutes. Once distracted, it took about 25 minutes for them to return to their original task, between the time necessary to deal with the distraction and "recover" afterward and resume the original task. A more conservative estimate suggests that interruptions and distractions consume 28% of a worker's day.

In terms of morale, it was found the more frequently a worker is interrupted, the less job satisfaction he has: he is more apt to feel frustrated, pressured, and stressed. Nearly 50% of workers feel that technology makes them less productive and increases the number of hours they have to devote to their jobs.

All things considered, computer technology may have made office workers more productive, but information technology has made them more distracted - so the evidence supports the notion that to be productive, a worker must seek to "unplug" and focus on his activities, limiting the time he is available for others to interrupt.

Old Fears of New Media

Objections to information technology are nothing new. The author presents a quote from Socrates, who railed against the simple act of writing: "This discovery [of writing] will create forgetfulness ... because they will not use their memories, they will trust to the external written characters," though it was later discovered that the act of writing something down assisted in embedding thoughts into memory.

In 1565. Swiss scientist Conrad Gesner "authored a book criticizing the printed book" on the grounds that it would create an abundance of information that would be detrimental to society. In 1883, a medical journal suggested that education, in compelling children to learn a wide array of things, would "exhaust the children's brains and nervous systems ... and ruin their bodies."

As such, the contemporary critics of technology are merely echoing the same sentiments that were raised in ages past - and in time, will likely seem no less ridiculous.