published Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Kennedy: Information overload can kill family time

Last Saturday afternoon, my family was sequestered in a Hampton Inn near Smyrna, Tenn., waiting for a rain-delayed soccer tournament to resume.

Sitting on a hotel-room bed, I looked up from my laptop computer and realized the four of us — me, my wife and our two sons — were all wired and happily oblivious of one another.

I was pressing the refresh button on my MacBook for the millionth time to see if a line of thunderstorms on the National Weather Service radar had moved another 50 feet.

My 4-year-old son was on a couch tapping random patterns on an iPad drum-kit app.

Meanwhile, my 9-year-old son was scanning the Internet on his aunt’s iPad for the latest prices on NFL rookie cards.

For her part, my wife was texting soccer scores on her smartphone to friends and family across Tennessee.

So much for good, old-fashioned togetherness.

Occasionally, we would look up from our gadgets to grumble about the weather or to argue about our lunch plans, but then we would all drift back into our web-induced dazes.

Thirty years ago, I might have been outside scanning the clouds. My 4-year-old might have been playing a real drum. My older son would have probably been sorting — not appraising — sports cards. And my wife would have been reading a paperback. Or perhaps we would have all just gone bowling.

All this digital information flying around might or might not be a good thing. (I’m leaning toward “not a good thing.”)

My endless weather monitoring, for example, didn’t change the temperature one degree or stop the rain. My older son’s football card research frustrated him when, later in the day, a real card shop owner informed him his Internet prices were wrong.

A lot of top thinkers these days are beginning to talk about “information overload” — in short, it’s the belief that too much information can be a bad thing for a human brain. A recent cover story in Newsweek titled “Brain Freeze” compared this information onslaught to “trying to take a drink from a fire hose of information” which has “harmful cognitive effects.”

I’ve been reading an interesting book, “The Social Animal,” by New York Times columnist David Brooks. The book draws together some of the best thinking in neuroscience. A major conclusion of the “The Social Animal” is that conscious thoughts only represent a small fraction of our brain power. Brooks says there’s a much deeper subconscious layer of our being that houses emotions and contains most of our shared memory. Or, if you prefer, our cultural beliefs and even our faith.

If we overload our small-caliber conscious mind with endless information, we suppress the big guns at our disposal and miss the chance to make smarter, subconscious decisions, Brooks says.

I’ll let smarter people figure this out, but I’ve got this vague feeling they’re onto something. My endless Wi-Fi surfing sometimes feels like nail-biting, a nervous habit. Maybe our shared memory is kicking in and many of us are reaching the same conclusion simultaneously.

The sentence at the bottom of this column will be in italics and will ask you to follow me on Twitter or Facebook. Do as you like, but it won’t offend me if, instead, you decide to go bowling.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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