Take Two #8: Tech on the Brain

Hello everyone! I’m writing to all of you from the land of cold and snow that is the US Mountain Time Zone. It’s stunningly beautiful, but traipsing over porches of ice and wet in an open-toed walking boot has been a…shall we say interesting experience? Sadly, it doesn’t matter how thick your socks are in the end.

Beyond an alien environment, I also find myself typing on unfamiliar keys. Earlier this week my dilapidated laptop finally died. Already missing the “M” key and with the casing bent at an odd angle in the lower left hand corner, I knew it was only a matter of time. One moment I was happily traipsing through the twists and turns of cyberspace, and the next I was faced with the black screen of death and despair. No amount of pleading, desperate hand gestures, finger wiggling or even actual troubleshooting could revive my brain dead friend. There was only one thing left to do: declare a DNR and pull the plug.

Left all alone in the world, I have been wandering in a daze of confused inactivity. I feel so cut off! I mean, I only have an iTouch and a Blackberry and my boyfriend’s laptop… Okay, so I’m not missing my hand, maybe a pinky? Regardless, it’s just not the same.

Addiction to technology is not unique or even uncommon. We have entered an age where instant gratification and constant communication are standard. South Korea actually treats addictions to videogaming and the Internet as a psychological disease. Their government has established several free, two-week detox camps for teens, and 2nd grade curriculum includes mandatory instruction on responsible Internet usage and web etiquette called “netiquette.” While I doubt the effectiveness of the camps – two weeks is not enough time – the latter is something the US sorely needs. I’m sure most of us are familiar with the detrimental effects of impersonal and often anonymous Internet interaction, the lack of culpability for one’s actions.

In schools, cyber-bullying is the new craze. It’s outside the classroom and in an extremely public forum (nowadays usually Facebook) that gives the victim no real way to defend his or her self without entering into a fruitless mud-slinging battle. Online, anyone can say whatever they want. Plus it’s out there for everyone to see and to save. Oddly enough, person-to-person online interaction comparatively improves once three-dimensional avatars with realistic faces are brought into the picture.

This brings me to an idea that spawned while I was watching the PBS documentary “Digital_Nation.” Our concept of what VR (virtual reality) is and is not and the subsequent consequences that it does and does not have are entirely artificial. I’ll start with a simple example. I’m sure most people don’t consider Facebook to be VR, after all that’s supposedly “us” online not a character, right? But think about it. Our Facebook profiles are only “us” so far as we choose to share. Both it and our characters in any massive multi-player online role-playing game (e.g. Second Life and World of Warcraft) are created and defined by us and interact with other manufactured characters according to how we choose in a distinctly separate and contained world. So is Facebook real or virtual?

In one experiment, fully half of the young children shown a virtual image of themselves swimming with whales believed it to be a real memory one week later. Air Force drone pilots still suffer PTSD regardless of never having left their hometown. A test group has even proven that VR therapy can treat veterans with PTSD by desensitizing their brains to stressful situations, while people who play violent VR videogames (e.g. Call of Duty) claim to be unaffected by the violent gameplay. And last but not least, Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has shown that exposing people to virtual situations involving avatars designed to look and speak like them does influence their behavior in similar real life scenarios.

The proliferated fear of technology and its consequences is both founded and ineffective. I can rant and rave all I want, but I still ordered another laptop the very next day after my old one broke. And it isn’t like the fallout is all bad by a long shot.

Technology is complicated, powerful and very much here. No matter how we look at it, we are all wired, pulled helplessly along by the need to stay connected to people and our own increasing drive for rapid return. The world is constantly changing, always has been. What we need to do is decide how we want to change with it.

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