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Digital Evolution
For better or worse, people raised in the computer age have developed different brain circuitry. Their elders -- 'immigrants' to this brave new world -- must adapt or be left in a cloud of dust

By Tom Spears
December 21, 2008

iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind

By Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan

HarperCollins, $26.95

Grown up Digital:

How the Net Generation is Changing Your World

By Don Tapscott

McGraw Hill, $30.95

Don Tapscott argues that children of the computer age have wonderful analytical abilities.Photograph by: Glenn Baglo, Canwest News Service, Citizen Special

I first called Gary Small on a news story this fall. A neuroscientist and gerontologist in California, he had found that older people who use Google create dynamic new brain circuitry that fights aging, just like doing crosswords or learning a second language.

But that, he insisted, was just the beginning.

"In the last few years, I've been struck by how technology is everywhere in our lives, and I wondered how it's affecting our brain," he told me.

The full story of how brains adapt to the computer world would fill a book, he added. He knows this because he and his wife, Gigi Vorgan, have just finished writing it.

Humanity's adaptation to a digital world is a form of evolution, even though it's an amazingly fast one, Small argues. (I single him out because the book's viewpoint is first person singular, Small recounting his experience. He's the doctor, she's the writer. He was also one of Scientific American magazine's "50 great visionaries" of 2002.) His perspective makes sense; evolution is often an adaptation to a changing environment, and there's nothing wrong with including the built environment -- technology -- in this concept.

Today's young people can do more things at once with their brains than their parents ever could, as a result of long training: TV, iPods, texting, homework all at once. But if we are more engrossed in things online, and spending less time face-to-face, then there's also the possibility of evolution down the wrong path.

What follows, the neuroscientist says, is an actual weakening of some neural circuitry. The neurons are still there, but they aren't linking up into the sophisticated network that allows complex brain action in areas outside the computer world:

"Our social interactions may become awkward, and we tend to misinterpret, and even miss subtle, nonverbal messages."

He wonders what might happen at some important diplomatic summit in the future, if humanity slips this way.

The women at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) could tell him the answer today. Back in the 1990s they persuaded the famous tech school to give annual training to students on how to ask someone on a date; how to flirt; how to eat dinner in public; how to dance. The session continues each year, and it's wildly popular. It's called Charm School (a small physics joke; there's a subatomic particle called a charm). Charm School evolved because female students said MIT men had social skills that bordered on stalking.

Of course, every study has a counter-study; this fall, a couple of Canadian and U.S. polling companies released surveys that showed computer game players have healthy social lives, friends and families. Pick your study.

Small's and Vorgan's main thesis is that there are now two distinct types of human brain. Young people raised in the digital age have neural circuitry that has developed differently. It's not just that they know different things than their elders know. They have different hardware; their brains actually contain different circuits. For one thing, they focus fast on a web page -- often spending less than two seconds per site. That's not "digital ADD," he says. They're just really, really fast at sorting information.

Their elders -- he wryly calls them "immigrants" to the digital world, while the kids are "natives" -- must adapt or be left in a cloud of dust. No surprise there. Luckily, most can -- though with a twist: Immigrants still learn best in a teacher-and-pupil setting; the younger set learn better online.

What makes all these brain studies possible is a new machine called the functional MRI, or fMRI. I've had a test-drive in one. You lie in a metal tube, a sound like a jackhammer goes off in your ear, and the machine can scan which areas of the brain become active. Cells there "light up" visibly on a screen, showing which neurons -- governing speech, touch, imagination or memory, for instance -- are at work.

Everyone in this digital society has some learning to do, Small insists. Those lacking in computer-era skills need to catch up; but equally, those immersed in the computer world need to learn social skills that are too easily lost online. And employers? They have to bring both groups together.

It's reassuring that his prescription for a healthy brain is Renaissance wisdom. "Cross-train your brain. Don't focus on any one activity," he told me. "You build up the strength of certain neural circuits just like you can build up certain muscles." Incidentally, the UCLA researcher is excellent at showing in plain English how brain cells connect.

Don Tapscott has been writing about our relationship with technology for two decades. Eleven years ago, he published Growing Up Digital -- a first look at kids who have never known life before computers. His new sequel is Grown Up Digital. (Cute play on words, but will it confuse readers?) He comes at it with the expertise of a University of Toronto business professor, having interviewed more than 10,000 young people about their views on technology. (He had a staff to help.)

Computers are like the air to this generation, he marvels. They use technology constantly, they assume it's everywhere around them, and they look right through it without really seeing it.

The point came home to him forcefully in the 1990s, when he did a TV appearance showing viewers how to surf the Internet. His children were embarrassed almost to the point of outrage. What's next, they demanded: Would Dad show viewers how to surf the refrigerator? How to change TV channels?

Tapscott is the optimist for this generation, though he isn't part of it. Parents may hate reading this, but he runs through the usual list of bad things we expect technology to do to the young (short attention spans, superficial analysis powers, and so forth) and discards them all -- except one. Young people, he warns, have no idea how much valuable privacy they are abandoning, and they'd better watch out. But the rest? Their powers of analysis are wonderful, he argues. They dig into an astonishing array of information from all over, and comment on it. They critique where their parents tended more to observe the world around them. And this is not time spent away from fresh air and sports, he argues. If there weren't an Internet, they'd all be watching TV -- like their parents.

As I mentally prepare the "Oh yeah?" reply, a memory flashes back from high school: Me, sorting awkwardly through the grubby index cards in rows of small wooden drawers at the George Locke Public Library in Toronto, hunting for a book, any book, that might help with a school project. Was that better?

And a second memory, from last spring, my high-school reunion with people I hadn't seen for 25 years. A young woman whom Tapscott quotes wouldn't get that experience. "My high-school reunion happens on Facebook. All day. Every day," she told him.

If you want support (mostly) for the idea that the Internet and cellphones breed high-minded, inquiring minds that constantly question authority, Tapscott supplies it in his book. He also calls on older bosses to recognize the new generation's uniqueness, or suffer for it. Ban Facebook at the office, he warns, and you'll demoralize -- and likely lose -- your fresh young crop of workers.

I find his claim to describe an entire generation one-sided, as with many polls that try to portray an entire demographic group with a single characteristic. There are many sides to any big story. One example: A colleague in her 20s grumbled last week that her trip to Montreal with friends was boring. The friends didn't want to do much; they just wanted to find cute backdrops for photos of themselves -- for Facebook.

And the same technology that allows instant creativity also brings instant rumours that are often malicious, not creative. You know the ones: This Christmas, viral e-mails have warned that Future Shop is going under (it's not); and that the Toronto Star's "Santa Claus Fund" gives children clothes with unique stripes to identify them as poor kids. (False again, but amazingly, people believed it and got angry at the charity.)

And yet, Tapscott and Small both make a point we can't ignore. The technology of constant connectedness exists, and it has bred a generation. They're not like any previous one. Deal with it.

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