Is digital content stimulating or short-circuiting our brains?

One observer says screen-based content encourages greater interaction; another says it takes away intellectual chores.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Is the rise of digital culture changing our reading habits and overall comprehension? If so, are things changing for better or for worse? 

For the better, says Kevin Kelly, writing in Smithsonian Magazine, noting that "some 4.5 billion digital screens illuminate our lives." Screens are everywhere -- in our pockets, our briefcases, on our desks, and all over our homes. Screens are the new paper.

"We are now people of the screen," he says.

However, while some fear that digital culture and screens have "dumbed down" the population, Kelly says the opposite may be true:

"Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen 'friends' for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it....  Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. The screen rewards, and nurtures, thinking in real time."

Not everyone feels this optimistic about our relationship with screens and digital culture, however. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, ponders whether reliance on digital technology is reducing our mental acuity. Relying on software to tackle problems means people "risk losing the ability to properly learn something - in effect 'short-circuiting' the brain," he said in a recent BBC interview:

"When you think about how we're coming to depend on software for all sorts of intellectual chores, for finding information, for socializing - you need to start worrying that it's not giving us, as individuals, enough room to act for ourselves."

The debate is growing, as experts and pundits ponder the impact of digital life on our senses and sensibilities.

(Photo credit: CNET)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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