The explosion of digital technology has radically transformed the way we do things. If this is true of those who have experienced the digital revolution, it is more so for new generations who are growing up and being educated in a digitalized society, those who iBrain refers to as "Digital Natives". Does this immersion in digital technology hide potential dangers, specially for younger people? "iBrain, surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind" presents a compendium of potential harms from common misuse of digital technology, challenging us to take control of the digital revolution, rather than been driven by it.
One of the more important points that come across in iBrain is that the use of digital technologies can easily become an addiction. iBrain argues that playing games, shopping, "googling", emailing and other online activities are driven by short-felt chemical rewards (when a new email arrives, a search is successful, etc..) that engage parts of the brain involved in the development of addiction. Addiction to digital technologies may be behind some cases of mental health problems such as attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity or depression. The thin line between use and abuse of digital technology makes stronger the case for the reflection this book presents.
The authors go further to try to demonstrate that digital technology affects our personal development in a deeper way. The overall picture given by Small and Vorgan is that digital technology demands a fragmented and disembodied experience, that although may enhance our ability to perform several tasks in parallel and to extract relevant information quickly, often excludes richer forms of interpersonal relations and expertise in the world. Excessive use will jeopardize the ability to communicate, to experience emotion and empathy, and for the authors explicitly those qualities that make us human.
Despite the role of scientific insights in the arguments presented, the theme of the book is not a cognitive neuroscience theory. It is soon evident that the authors feel very strongly about the trend in lifestyle and education that emerges from the "saturation" of technology. The reader will not find scientific impartiality, but easily notice a bias in how many of the scientific reports are charged with value-judgments. The way digital activities are more often than not depicted in inherently negative terms, as in the presentation of fictional cases of near personal collapse due to the use of digital technology, will put some readers off and weaken the role of scientific reports in the arguments. Although some sections are based on sound neuroscience, scientific rigor is doubtful at times, as for instance when the process of learning in the brain and an evolutionary process based on selection of the fittest seem to be confused.
Raising awareness on the addictive nature of digital technology and its potential misuse is the main achievement of iBrain. Some readers will undoubtedly develop a more critical view of the role technology is playing in their lives. The reader looking for a sound discussion of the personal and social issues that arise in our new digital culture will nevertheless be disappointed. At times the book seems to express the conviction that digital technology is the only barrier between us and a life with all the human qualities the authors praise. In summary, iBrain presents a rather fragmented series of insights and hypothesis, to very bluntly suggest over and over again that we should all try to cut our use of digital technology. Whether we agree or not with the overall point, the discussion found in iBrain remains impulsive and often superficial.
© 2009 Carlos Herrera
Carlos Herrera has a PhD in Cognitive Science at Glasgow Caledonian University, with the title The Synthesis of Emotion in Artificial Agents, as well as a postgraduate Diploma in Philosophy at Glasgow University.