All print media including books, newspapers and magazines are in deep trouble today thanks to new developments in technology, as are traditional methods of classroom instruction and school curricula. To that extent the Internet can be described as a revolutionary invention that has altered and transformed the way information is presented and conceived. Individuals are learning and creating innovative ways to contribute to relevant knowledge at an excessive speed, and the Western world has become dependent on this technology and also more aware of its negative side. Whether the technology in our surroundings is causing human beings to become distracted, affecting our communication skills, or making them stupider is a question that has to be addressed.
This memorandum will describe these issues of trivialization and the 'shallow-ing out' of contemporary American culture, most of which are either as deliberately exaggerated and sensationalized as the Internet itself or being blamed on the wrong culprits and confusing the symptoms of social decay with the cause of the disease. In reality, capitalist consumer culture has long since encouraged all these trends toward banality, shallowness and narcissism, even before the invention of the latest round of communications technology. Academics eager to cash on the newest and latest social concerns are writing many trendy books today about how postmodern society is also becoming post-literate, dehumanized, shallow and superficial, with brains being rewired away from deep thought, memory and concentration to sending short text messages and jumping from one website to another. None of these concerns are new, but date back to the invention of all earlier forms of mass communication and entertainment, including radio, television, movies, and even comic books. For over one hundred years, capitalism has been constantly devising newer and better ways to provide mass entertainment, advertising, escapist fantasies and distraction for a profit, and cell phones, YouTube, Facebook and Google are really just more of the same in that key respect.
Rewiring Education and the Brains of the Young
In the 1950s, television, rock and roll and comic books were supposedly causing students to forget how to read, while in the 1980s the decline in math and science test scores compared to Asian countries was supposedly putting the nation at risk. Today, the culprit for a mediocre education system is the Internet, social media and cell phones. For example, in Matt Richtel's article "Growing up Digital" teenagers who should be doing their summer reading, not surprisingly prefer Facebook, YouTube and other distractions to Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. Now Vonnegut was a genius, of course, and one the greatest American satirists since Mark Twain, but frankly his popularity reached its peak about two or three generations back and his books are more appealing to teachers than today's generation of students (Richtel 2010).
Harvard Medical School researchers like Michael Rich are warning parents that young brains are being rewired by the new technology, which favors visual experience and immediate gratification over deeper cognitive abilities. Television had the same effect, of course, and programmed viewers to expect a commercial break every eleven or twelve minutes, thus shortening their attention spans, and also to assume that most major problems would be resolved after twenty-five or fifty-five minutes when the episode ended. Movies were also able to do this in about ninety minutes, not including the advertising before the start of the picture. Internet and cell phone technology are even more accelerated than television, and young brains are "rewarded not for staying on task, but for jumping to the next thing" (Richtel 2010). Teachers are being forced to create their own websites and communicate with students through iPads and email to keep up with the times, while students are becoming "addicted to the virtual world and lost in it" (Richtel 2010). All things considered, there have always been worse substances to which young people can become addicted, and all the narcissists, alienated loners and obsessive-compulsives described in these warning books and articles always sought sensations, diversions and distractions in other activities before the age of the Internet.
Unsupervised use of computers and cell phones is commonplace today because both parents are working, and usually longer hours than thirty or forty years ago. This is caused by the need to have two incomes to maintain at least the illusion of a middle class level of affluence, which is more difficult today than in the past. Half of all students age 8-18 are using the Internet or watching TV at least 'some' of the time while also attempting to do homework, and adults are simply not around as much as they used to be to control such distractions (Richtel 2010). Television has existed since the 1940s, however, and radio, record players and regular telephones even before that, and in their day all of these were at least as distracting as the Internet and hand-held communication systems. Sociable students gravitate toward Facebook or sending hundreds and thousands of text messages, while isolated loners prefer online movies, music and video games and "do not socialize through technology -- they recede into it" (Richtel 2010). Pediatricians have found that video games caused more sleep disturbances than TV and cause more deterioration in memory as more emotionally stimulating information crowded out boring subjects like Latin and vocabulary. In the past, though, all of them would have been just as easily distracted by something else besides the Internet or other virtual activities.
The Internet and the Dumbing Down of Society
Nicholas Carr has written that Google is making humanity stupid, causing certain parts of the brain to atrophy through disuse and creating a society of shallow thinkers. He concedes that this has been happening for quite some time, but also insists that "the accelerating rhythm of modern life, the dispersions of attention, and information overload" have all worsened due to the latest round of technological innovations (Morozov 2010). Google also targets its users with aggressive advertising in return for its 'free' service, and has undermined book, magazine and newspaper publishing, with the paper versions becoming obsolete. Yet none of this is new, and various trendy, postmodern theorists have been writing for decades about virtual reality, the death of the human, and the decline of "linear narrative, stable truths, and highly-structured, rational discourse" (Morozov 2010). Serious literary reviews and critical thought are in decline, at least in their printed form, and the 'free' anonymous versions available online are often of lower quality than those found in printed books and journals. To be sure, most material printed on pages was hardly high quality, either, but designed to appeal to a mass consumer audience, and the same divisions between highbrow and lowbrow or elite and popular culture that always existed in the larger society have also been replicated on the Internet.
Internet and virtual reality provide an escape from a capitalist society that produces a great deal of human waste and dysfunction that people increasingly wish to avoid. They no longer have to participate in face-to-face interactions unless they so choose and obviously millions prefer simply to opt out. In addition to being an escape mechanism, the Internet also provides anonymous communities for those who share the same hobbies, interests, political and religious views or sexual desires. In these, the consumer no longer has to interact with anyone whose ideas they oppose but only with those sharing the same opinions and values (Morozov 2010). To this extent, the new technologies are accelerating and increasing the divisions and balkanization of postmodern society, although it definitely did not create these. Just the opposite, they have always existed throughout history and have frequently led to more violent outcomes than the verbal wars on the Internet.
Ethics and Privacy Concerns in Relation to the New Technologies
Medical and mental health care professionals operate under strict ethical and legal guidelines concerning the protection of client confidentiality. Without an atmosphere or trust and confidentiality, these professions that gather the most sensitive kind of personal information simply cannot function at all. This has become even more difficult in the era of cellphones, the Internet and electronic mail, for which few ethical rules exist. Among these are the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which includes a Privacy Rule requiring protection of all confidential information transmitted by phone or electronically. In the last ten years "we have become so accustomed to relying on technology that careful thought is not always given to subtle ways that privacy can be violated" (Corey 227). In an environment with relatively new technologies like email, cell phones, voice mail, clients are rightfully concerned that violations of privacy and leaks of confidential personal information have become more common than ever before. Legal and ethical guidelines prohibit the disclosure of confidential medical, psychiatric and legal information to unauthorized third parties. All providers have to be especially careful about passwords and access codes to voice mail, email and answering machines, or sending information via email and cell phones to persons or organizations other than their clients. Confidential information…