The Case for Online Distractions

It’s easy to blame Google and PowerPoint for distracting us and making us employ bullet points. But, as Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, argues in last week’s New York Times, we shouldn’t get worried about technologies’ power of distraction. Perhaps, he says, we should be thankful since “technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.”

Pinker states that new forms of media usually meet initial skepticism. The printing press, radio, television, comic books and, of late, video games have all been labeled dangerous in one way or another during their admission into popular culture. With time, each medium eventually finds acceptance and praise.

Today’s critics of new technologies like Twitter, PowerPoint, e-book previews, and blogs worry that we’ll all suffer from information overload. We often hear the line that computer and smart phone users will get lost, confused, and increasing unproductive in a content-filled cyberworld.

Pinker doesn’t see it that way. People who seek to increase their knowledge on a particular subject will and be able to do so with greater ease with new technologies and won’t necessarily be driven to idle distraction. While the computer age has bred a new variety of time-wasters, it has also created a powerful learning tool.

Ultimately Pinker thinks we must approach new technologies with caution. Exploit its benefits while diligently abstaining from its idle pleasures. He advocates turning off smart phones at dinnertime and logging out of your email for hours. For Pinker, with great internet access comes great responsibility.

The internet has cataloged great amounts of information and Google (and sites like it) have become its sponsored librarian. Pinker argues that if we stay in the smarter sections of the library for a prescribed amount of time, we won’t suffer from information overload all that much. If we start wasting time in the general interest and entertainment sections, we’ll distract ourselves and not get anything meaningful done.

Perhaps, but wandering has its benefits and charms.

While new technologies make it easier to waste time, they aren’t responsible for time wasting. Pinker’s conclusions are welcome among worried headlines technology critics who fear the loss of rational thought in the age of Twitter. We don’t have to fear the perpetual distraction of new technologies since they can inform progress, help rational thought, and aid analytical research in exciting ways.

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