Socrates was a pretty fearless guy -- even death didn't faze him. In fact, about the only thing that scared the gadfly of Athens and father of Western philosophy was the new technology of reading and writing: He never put pen to papyrus, fearing that reading would foster forgetfulness and thwart the quest for wisdom.
How do we know this? Because Plato, Socrates' star pupil, embraced reading and writing and preserved his master's views, including his disdain for reading and writing. (Sixteen hundred years later, the next paradigm-shifting tech development in communication -- Gutenberg's printing press, which allowed the masses to read about Socrates -- didn't go over so well either.)
Reading, writing and printing managed to survive, allowing for today's lively debate about the intellectual and social consequences of the Internet, which book publishing legend Jason Epstein describes in the NYRB as a "Tech shift orders of magnitude greater than the momentous evolution from monkish scriptoria to movable type."
Speaking at Virginia's Hampton University last week, President Obama made news when he said, "With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction...rather than a tool of empowerment." The president underscored the message of Nicholas Carr's influential 2008 Atlantic Magazine opus Is Google Making Us Stupid? and forthcoming book The Shallows ,which argue -- bolstered by compelling scientific research -- that the plasticity of the human brain makes it vulnerable to degradation from the relentless distractions of email, Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter. The result? A diminished ability to read and think deeply. Carr's own experience is that "What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
Adding pop cultural resonance to the Internet-as-distraction meme,88-year-old comedienne Betty White, guest-hosting SNL's highest rated show in 18 months, garnered wild applause when she opined that Facebook is a waste of time.
It's not easy to dispute such worthies as Obama, Carr and White, especially given my own penchant for checking email several times a minute.
And yet, and yet...
Contemplative practices like meditation and yoga -- the yin to Internet promiscuity's yang -- are also on the rise. My meditation practice -- which facilitates clarity and focus -- has benefited incalculably from Buddhist and other spiritual websites, blogs, lectures, readings, videos and guided meditations. And my meditation group's email tree has become an interactive source for ideas, links and information about local events members might otherwise never discover.
I was a sworn enemy of Kindle till my mom got me one last Christmas. Since then, I've downloaded -- for a dollar! -- and read a couple of the demanding books Carr says have become so difficult for our brains to fathom. (Okay, so I only read the Don Quixote ebook a few pages at a time, but pre-Internet the hardcover sat on my shelves for decades, unopened.) I can access Plato's Dialogues in an instant, for free, and read them anytime I please. And Google Books, by providing access to vast swaths of material at the click of a mouse, helps me plot future literary adventures.
Carr also notes that when we're online, we tend to chase links so rapidly that we lose track of what we were reading in the first place. But I read Carr's lengthy Atlantic piece online without interruption -- and only found out about his book via a link from Salon. And when learning about music on, say, Alex Ross's blog The Rest Is Noise the ability to shift back and forth (from listening to relevant pieces to the text) is nothing short of astonishing.
The work of Carr and other skeptics may help users become mindful of the dangers of Internet addiction. Arianna Huffington and Ellen Kunes -- self-confessed PDA-aholics -- have launched a program to help Internet-obsessed people carve out time away from the fray. And programs like Freedom -- which disables email and other distractions for prearranged blocks of time, like hiding the ice cream in the basement freezer -- provide practical tools for staying centered.
How Internet communication will ultimately affect a generation who grew up with cell phone earpieces in their ears and laptops on their laps is unknowable. But I know more than a few 20-somethings -- and I'll bet you do too -- who Tweet and Facebook religiously but also love poetry and complicated novels and five-act Shakespeare plays.
Perhaps the real answer lies in quantum physics, which tells us that the act of observation changes the nature of what's observed, so that a photon, for instance, can sometimes be a particle and sometimes a wave. Is the Internet making us smart or stupid? Time will tell, but for now it all depends on how you look at it.