Is technology the enemy of communication?

We at Stampa are all about communication, and digital is obviously a huge part of that. So we should perhaps be the last to complain about the explosive growth in screens in the world around us. But when leading Dutch financial newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad invited me to write about the harmful effects digital technology could be having on our brains, I jumped at the chance.

The article, titled The creeping climate change in our brain, was triggered by a lecture I had attended by British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield. She argues that the way new technologies could be affecting humans and changing the way young people, in particular, think and feel is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change.

Greenfield is a controversial figure in the UK – critics ask why she raises her concerns primarily through the media rather than publishing academic papers – but she is not alone in raising such concerns.  In a 2012 book called ‘Digital Dementia’, German neuroscientist Marcus Spitzer said overuse of technology was resulting in the breakdown of cognitive abilities in a way more often seen in people who had suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness. MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle this month published ‘Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age’, looking at the effect on face-to-face conversation “in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk”.

“We are being silenced by our technologies – in a way, ‘cured of talking’,” writes Turkle. She talks about a study in which her team introduced robots to elderly people, and was jubilant when a woman who had lost a child began talking to a baby seal robot. “But the question is, who’s listening to the person?” asks Turkle. “There’s nobody listening. The social compact is not just about the talking, it’s also about the listening.”

And that is the key for anyone interested in communicating in any way and at any level. The communication compact is not just about the talking, or the writing. It’s about the listening, and the reading.

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