I recently attended a high-profile international conference on teaching democracy. It was an eye-opening experience, for reasons slightly different from those intended by the organizers. On the bus from the airport, a 14-15-year old boy in the seat in front spent maybe 40 minutes on Facebook – scrolling up and down on his phone, typing comments, and doing whatever you typically do on Facebook. It was a vivid reminder that the information revolution was not necessarily enhancing interest in and perusal of information related to larger social issues. During the conference, however, I was amazed to see the kid's behavior replicated on a much grander scale.
Almost half of those present, some of them college or university presidents, spend much of the time taping on various electronic devices, mostly tablets connected wirelessly to the internet. They did that without any palpable sense of embarrassment, as if it was the most normal thing to do in such settings. During one plenary session a woman sneaked in late, settled in the seat next to me, and pulled out a tablet. She then spent over an hour switching frequently between Facebook, Gmail, Jezabel, a few shopping web sites, and what not. A couple of times she turned off the tablet and tried to tune in to the speaker in front, but apparently felt an itch, powered up the device again, and resumed her surfing. I wish she had accidentally called up a recent story on the Scientific American web site suggesting a troubling answer to the question: “Does Addictive Internet Use Restructure the Brain?” It must have evoked a gleeful smirk from Nicholas Carr who told us so three years ago, before all the experimental data had started to pour in.