Nagging worries about whether the latest bit of cutting-edge technology will have the unforeseen side effect of dulling our minds have been around ever since the dawn of recorded history. Long before Wikipedia or Google, Plato wrote of a king who feared that the invention of letters and reading would give its users the ability to cite facts that they had not properly earned or mastered. Such an invention will lead to forgetfulness among users, the ancient king predicted, and provide them with a false sense of wisdom.
Anyone who has followed an online political discussion or felt a twinge of guilt as she consulted the Web for help with the kids’ homework can identify with this concern. A person may know how to Google the answer to a question, after all, but that doesn’t mean that she knows anything else about the topic at hand.
Technology writer Howard Rheingold ponders this in his latest book, “Net Smart,” which strives to be a sort of consciousness-raising how-to guide for all of us who are immersed in the Web era. Rheingold, who has been writing about the digital revolution for a quarter-century, praises and critiques the Web’s tools and diversions. It’s his aim to make readers more aware of both the benefits and the potential drawbacks of digital life.
“Net Smart” arrives at the same time as a similarly minded title that is more narrowly focused on parenting in the digital age. James P. Steyer founded the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization Common Sense Media with the aim of helping parents figure out how to responsibly usher children into the digital era; his new book, “Talking Back to Facebook,” shares that goal.
For their respective audiences, both books aim to serve as a wake-up call. Technology isn’t inherently good, and it isn’t inherently bad, the authors argue — but, then again, technology isn’t exactly neutral, either. To get the most benefit out of the Web’s vast offerings, we need to more closely examine how we, or how our kids, are spending time online. It’s a hard thesis to contradict.
To grab the reader’s attention, both authors put forward an array of startling numbers and statistics about our digital habits. The average 15-year-old receives nearly 3,500 texts a month, we learn from Steyer. On YouTube, Rheingold tells us, 35 hours of video clips are uploaded every minute.
The Web has greatly changed how information is generated and distributed, but attempts to analyze that change are often strange. According to Rheingold, Google’s chief exectutive has said that “every two days, humans produce as much information as we did from the era of cave painting up to 2003.”
Such a claim seems staggering, but Rheingold asserts that there is nothing to fear. A few centuries ago, the first encyclopedia tried to organize the flood of information made available by the invention of the printing press. The task facing today’s Wikipedia, he says, isn’t so different.
Steyer argues that the amount of time children spend in front of computers and smartphones should be limited, and his book is most helpful when the studies he cites can be directly translated into action. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, for example, that kids spend no more that two hours per day in front of their computer screen. YouTube, he tells us, is not intended for users younger than 13.
Steyer longs for an “eraser” button on the Web that would help protect kids who make flubs online by allowing them to undo their mistakes. Rheingold, on the other hand, assumes that there’s no such thing in the works and that his audience is going to stay plugged in, no matter what. With that in mind, he breaks his book down into a series of tools and skills that he believes the new digital citizen must master.
In Rheingold’s judgment, for example, Web surfers should learn to harness their attention properly, so as not to get lost in the Web’s distracting nooks and crannies. Rheingold advises readers on tactics for collaborating with others online and on how to critically consume the information picked up along the way. Not least, he reminds the reader of the importance of breathing regularly as they dive through their e-mail inbox.
It would be unwise for any author to write step-by-step tips to navigate a digital revolution that is still in the works. Tell somebody, for example, how to change his privacy settings on Facebook today and the required mouseclicks might change tomorrow. Rheingold and Steyer are generally savvy enough to avoid such pitfalls, but what’s left is suggestions that sometimes feel vague or obvious. Take a break from your computer screen, both authors advise. Think about how you’re spending your time. Talk to your kids. Don’t believe everything you read online.
As Rheingold pointed out, the fears that sometimes come over us as we consult the Web for information are as old as the technology of reading. If that’s the case, then it is appropriate, if unexciting, that the authors’ prescriptions also feel rooted in ancient values. “Everything in moderation” seems to be the key message here. I think it was Aristotle who said that. I can’t remember exactly, and I can’t get Google to confirm it for me.
How to Thrive Online
By Howard Rheingold
MIT Press. 322 pp. $24.95
TALKING BACK TO FACEBOOK
The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age
By James P. Steyer
Scribner. 206 pp. Paperback, $15