Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow visionaries, my daughters have 150 more friends than I did at their age. Nearly every waking moment holds the possibility of a status update, a text, an IM, a YouTube link, or other communication from the matrix. I look upon their busy digital lives with some wonderment, but no envy. As a teen in that ancient prehistory before social media, I spent at least two hours outdoors every day, regardless of weather, engaged in some mindless ballgame or other, running everywhere I went, and glorying in my sheer physicality. When I flirted with girls and joked with my buddies, we were face to face at the corner or at the park; when I retreated to my room, I could ruminate on matters large and small, and focus for hours on one thing—music, my homework, a book. I read lots of books. My daughters used to love books, too, but now that their laptops and their smartphones are always pinging, there is less time for that. Someone somewhere always has something to say.
Even as an aging Boomer, I’m not wholly immune to digital cocaine: I’m online all day, and I’d weep if you took my iPad away. The revolution swallows us all. Still, is it silly and backward to wonder how the onslaught of nonstop input—most of it trivial—is altering how we think? Before GPS, scientists have found, people made intricate “mental maps” that guided them to destinations; with use, the spatial region of the brain actually grows larger. Rely on GPS, and your unaided ability to find your way withers—and so, perhaps, does some of your gray matter. If we rely on Facebook et al. as an interface with reality, what withers? What shrinks?