A 2018 report from National Public Radio and Edison Research reported that 8 million Americans own three or more smart speakers. By 2021, there will be almost as many personal-assistant bots on the planet as people. Amazon has sold tens of millions of their Echo devices.
Should we be concerned about machines that hang on our every word, eager to help? Judish Schelevitz thinks we should be concerned. Writing for The Atlantic last November, Schelevitz makes the following observations:
Last month, my friend Mark Weisman came over to my office to discuss empathy, emotional intelligence and technology. We looped Jason Boom into the conversation through Skype. It was a fascinating conversation about some of the ways digital technology is eroding skills in empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ). In a follow-up conversation, we discussed specific techniques people can practice for increasing their EQ skills.
During these discussions, Mark Weisman was able to contribute valuable insights from his perspective working for years in the tech industry, as well as from his experience as a husband. We explored what the latest brain science is showing about the corrosive effect of too much screen-time, particularly in brain regions associated with emotional maturity, introspection, expression recognition and emotional regulation.
Robin Phillips and Jason Van Boom continue the discussion with Mark Weisman on technology, empathy, attention and EQ. In this podcast you will learn what Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and the Great Tradition tell us about bringing attentiveness into our relationships. You will also learn the importance of slowing down to take a reflective turn, how to leverage neuroplasticity for good, and the relationship between the brain, body and emotions. Questions discussed include:
What tools and best practices are available for families who want to push back against the culture of distraction?
Is empathetic listening an ability that some people simply have while others do not, or is it a skill that can be developed with practice?
How does awareness of one’s own feelings relate to sensitivity towards the emotions of others?
How can we develop the intellectual virtue of contemplation, and how does this affect our relationships?
How does the Sabbath commandment reflect natural law?
From the podcast:
“…be aware of what other people are feeling, and listen to the emotions behind what they are saying rather than just being quick to respond to surface issues. Go deeper and really try to listen with your heart and with empathy. Often we get into fights and arguments about issues that are really just proxies for deeper emotional issues, and these deeper emotional issues, when they’re not being adequately addressed or listened to, can cause problems abort issues that are not really the issue.”
Beware of the what video games are doing to your brain, or to the brain of your child!
In Nicholas Carr’s book Utopia is Creepy, he has a chapter called ‘Grand Theft Attention’, where he reviews the latest research on video games and the brain. The chapter is a reprint of his 2011 blog post ‘Grand Theft Attention: video games and the brain.’
A 2009 study by a different group of Iowa State researchers, published in Psychophysiology, investigated the effects of video-gaming on cognitive control, through experiments with 51 young men, both heavy gamers and light gamers. The study indicated that video-gaming has little effect on “reactive” cognitive control – the ability to respond to some event after it happens. But when it comes to “proactive” cognitive control – the ability to plan and adjust one’s behavior in advance of an event or stimulus – video-gaming has a significant negative effect. “The negative association between video game experience and proactive cognitive control,” the researchers write, “is interesting in the context of recent evidence demonstrating a similar correlation between video game experience and self-reported measures of attention deficits and hyperactivity. Together, these data may indicate that the video game experience is associated with a decrease in the efficiency of proactive cognitive control that supports one’s ability to maintain goal-directed action when the environment is not intrinsically engaging.” Video gamers, in other words, seem to have a difficult time staying focused on a task that doesn’t involve constant incoming stimuli. Their attention wavers.
Robin and Jason are joined by Mark Weisman to discuss some of the ways digital technology is eroding skills in empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ). Mark Weisman contributes to this discussion from his perspective working for years in the tech industry. In this podcast you will learn the difference between “emotional empathy” and “cognitive empathy”, and why EQ is central to human flourishing. You will also learn what the latest brain science shows about the corrosive effect of too much screen-time, particularly in brain regions associated with emotional maturity, introspection, expression recognition and emotional regulation. (For more on this topic, visit out emotional intelligence archives.)
Wikipedia provides a good example of the self-reinforcing power of the web’s centripetal force. The popular online encyclopedia is less the sum of human knowledge than the black hole of human knowledge. A vast exercise in cut-and-past paraphrasing (it explicitly bans original thinking), Wikipedia first sucks in content from other sites, then it sucks in links, then it sucks in search results, then it sucks in readers. And because it prevents search engines from taking account of its outbound links to the sources of its articles, through the use of ‘no follow’ tags, it reinforces its hegemony over search results. Light comes in but doesn’t go out. One of the untold stories of Wikipedia is the way it has siphoned traffic from smaller specialized sites, like the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, even though those sites often have better information about the topics they cover. Wikipedia articles have become the default external link for many creators of web content, not because Wikipedia is the best source but because it’s the best-known source and, generally, it’s ‘good enough.’ Wikipedia is the lazy man’s link, and we’re all lazy men, except for those of us who are lazy women.
Moore’s law, which expresses itself in computers becoming smaller and smaller, seems to parallel what is happening in our machine-mediated discourse. Our public discourse has been shrinking at a rate rivaled by the speed at which the integrated circuit has diminished in size.
When fax machines first appeared, it was like magic precisely because they could transmit so much text. I remember standing in wonder at the fax machine in my father’s bookstore as it dropped page after page on the floor. When email appeared, it was again astonishing that so much text could be sent over the computer. People would spend hours crafting careful email messages that drew on the tradition of letter writing.
That didn’t last very long. As our communication media have evolved through instant messaging, text messaging and finally Twitter, what has come to attract us is not length but brevity. Our communication media orient us to eschew complexity and depth, to give preference to what is brief and transitory.
At least, that is what dawned on me when reading Nicholas Carr’s chapter on Twitter in his brand-new book Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations. This chapter, which is a reprint of Carr’s 2007 blog post, points out that Twitter’s great accomplishment has been to fragment the fragments, enabling us to turn any event in our lives, no matter how trifling, into a headline. Twitter dignifies the banal and glorifies the boring by enabling us to turn any experience into a stop-the-press bulletin. Twitter thus “wraps itself and its users in an infantile language” in which we can take refuge in the insignificant. Carr’s closing paragraph connects Twitter to emerging Virtual Reality technologies:
As the physical world takes on more of the characteristics of a simulation, we seek reality in the simulated world. At least there we can be confident that the simulation is real. At least there we can be freed from the anxiety of not knowing where the edge between real and unreal lies. At least there we find something to hold onto, even if it’s nothing.
The year is 2060. Professor Updike stands to take the podium for the keynote speech at his university’s annual communications conference.
Professor Updike is a clean-shaven African American man in his mid-forties. To the audience, however, these details are irrelevant. Everyone in attendance is wearing virtual reality glasses—a technology that allows each person to customize their own reality and seamlessly overlay that reality onto the physical world. This technology, at one time experimental and cumbersome, has now become normal and ubiquitous. In fact, it has become unusual not to see people wearing these glasses, although there remain some neo-Luddite holdouts in the rural areas.
Through their VR glasses, some people see Professor Updike as he would have looked twenty-five years ago as an undergraduate. Others have adjusted their VR settings to see him as a white person, or another race of preference. For still others, the professor appears to be giving his speech completely nude.
In this premier episode of their new podcast, Robin Phillips and Jason Van Boom discuss a recent study showing no correlation between a child’s well-being and time spent on technology. But is this study really as conclusive as the media is making out? And what can we learn about the role of studies in our culture? Robin and Jason also discuss why they are launching this podcast and what they plan to discuss on future episodes.