What digital evil lurks in the minds of men?

by Allen Pierleoni

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

6 July 2011


What if there were a government conspiracy to create an “Internet 2.0” by exploiting the unused memory space of older people?

It would start with a “computer-assisted oral history project” and end with unsuspecting citizens being transformed into “the ultimate mobile storage devices” to be used in the “secure transfer of information.”

What would the terrifying consequences of that be?

That’s the speculation in “Devil’s Plaything” by Matt Richtel (Harper, $9.99, 448 pages), his second thriller (after “Hooked”). He’s a San Francisco-based technical writer for the New York Times whose tale was based on research he assembled for a multipart series for the Times. “Our Brain on Computers” explored what the “technical distractions” of the digital age are doing to our brain functions. (To read the series, go to http://nyti.ms/lke23n.)

Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier series, “Driven to Distraction,” on the dangers of driving while using cellphones (http://nyti.ms/D4w29).

Q. There’s not much of a leap between the tech-oriented scenario in your thriller and the everyday digital world in which we live.

A. The story in some ways is fantastic, but it draws from real science. I tried to write a book that is as believable as possible.

Q. In your Times series, experts say the long-term consequences of digital overload aren’t fully understood.

A. Exactly right. This is a change on the order of the Industrial Revolution, and we’re at the very beginning of it. We’re only starting to awaken to what the side effects are. The reason the Times series resonated — and, hopefully, the book resonates — is because more people are saying, “Hey, something’s going on here. (Digital’s) not all good, it’s taking a toll on me in ways I don’t understand.”

Q. What are some of the side effects from 24 / 7 digital overload?

A. (Scientists and researchers say) fractured attention span, performance loss, some challenges with interacting in person and a habituation to task-switching that can come at the expense of focus. That said, there is one caveat: Technology serves us immeasurably in numerous ways.

Q. The obsession to be connected to everybody else via social networking has gone viral. Is there a psychology of connectedness?

A. Absolutely. We are programmed on a very primitive, reptilian (brain) level to respond to other people. Imagine yourself living in a village thousands of years ago, and someone taps you on your shoulder. You turn around immediately to find out if that’s foe or friend.

Now in your pocket you have a device that taps you on the shoulder every few seconds. So you feel compelled on a primitive level to see if that is opportunity or threat. That is one of the most basic psychological lures of digital devices.

There’s also “lottery ticket syndrome.” You get a ton of email (and other) messages every day, most (of which) are from the president of Nigeria asking you for money and promising to make you a millionaire.

Every once in awhile, though, one message is going to be great. But you never know which one that is, so you feel compelled to check all your messages all the time. That’s a powerful psychological lure.

Q. One part of your series involved a trip to a remote area in Utah with scientists who deliberately unplugged, as an experiment.

A. Yes, five neuroscientists (and I) went into the wild (for several days) and disconnected from all their devices. The bottom line was they noticed in themselves subtle but profound changes in the way they thought and the ways they perceived the world.

They determined those changes were good bases for further academic research.

They saw things with fresh eyes, heard nature and communicated with each other in more effective ways.

You might say, “Gosh, you go on vacation and the world seems to slow down. Does that really merit study?”

The answer is yes, particularly as the rest of the world speeds up. What does it mean that our environment speeds up and we can choose to slow it down?

Q. How do we avoid digital overuse?

A. Some really well-informed scientists say that unplugging is no small solution, if you have the strength to log off on occasion. One quote from a Harvard physician that I’ve parroted a lot is, “Bring back boredom.” Because in (the brain’s) down time lies a lot of opportunity for synthesis, creativity, analysis and thought — all of which are being neglected.

Q. You’re a tech journalist, so you have to be plugged in.

A. Do as I say, not as I do. I really do make an effort (to unplug), but I am as challenged as the rest of us about saying no.

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