Until recently, I resisted the idea that we’re being “re-wired” by new media.
After all, at our core we like to say we humans are all the same. We have the same needs, desires and hopes, though our life experiences are sometimes vastly different.
I was skeptical about the claim that superficial media could actually change the way our brains work. I’m less sure today.
Recently, while doing a search online for articles about social media and their effects on human communities, it occurred to me that the act of searching online is a different way of thinking about research. In contrast to my former visits to brick-and-mortar libraries, I can conduct research differently today than in the ancient past of pre-Internet days.
I was sitting at home, late in the evening, tapping a keyboard to get at various sources, not perusing a card catalogue and shuffling though shelves of hardbound books. The latter sounds almost archaic, in fact.
I found Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus” article and saw that it was expanded into book form and published recently. I read reviews, checked to see if it was on Audible.com or Amazon (available from both) and downloaded it from Audible.
In a matter of minutes, I was listening to the book.
This is only one example of how new media have changed my everyday life. Wherever I am, it is second nature for me to use my iPad or handheld device to check the news, respond to e-mail, share photos and video, get directions, and perform a host of other tasks. Easy access to limitless information has become the norm, and I’m almost always connected.
In retrospect, I concede I am being re-wired. Not knowing enough about how our brains work to make a scientific assessment of whether our neuron pathways are being changed, I’ve concluded that at the very least how I perceive and act upon my perceptions, expectations and access to information has changed how I function in pretty basic ways.
Not only has my method of research changed, so has my ability to check trusted sources online to assess the reliability of information, to secure opinions about the value of books and other information, and to act upon my desires or needs and get instantaneous feedback or gratification.
Until I reflected upon this later, it seemed quite normal. But it’s really quite amazing. I am being re-wired. I did not go to a bookstore and buy the book. I did not consult with a friend face-to-face about its content. I expected I could find it in a digital format and gain access to it immediately. I found it, ordered and downloaded it, and began to listen.
What I have not yet fully assimilated, and may never, is what this says about human interaction, trust, business, education and personal fulfillment. There are layers and layers of questions about human development, behavior and community.
These are the stuff of faith and the faith community. They are not necessarily the ultimate stuff, which is our relationship to God. But they come close.
A friend showed me an iPhone application that displays biblical text on-screen as a narrator reads it. This gets closer to how we relate to Scripture and perhaps how we use such tools for better or worse to relate to God.
So, the issue isn’t only that I’m being re-wired.
As if that weren’t enough, I’m discovering my spiritual practices could also be re-framed by these new media. I’m not afraid of this reality, but I am approaching it less casually than before.
The new media do change us in ways that are not merely superficial. This is a mixed blessing, one that I must continue to assess.
Have you been re-wired? Could new media change how you relate to God? Let me know what you think.