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iPhone Zombies Lost In Electronic Shallows

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Within the year, I'll be buying my first iPhone. And I'm nervous about how it will change both my daily habits and my physical brain. Will I become an Internet zombie?

Before dismissing my concern, I suggest you read "The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr. This 2010 book expands and documents his 2008 cover essay for The Atlantic, "Is Google making us stupid?" Both titles address the same concern Marshall McLuhan faced in 1964 when he wrote that "the medium is the message." In Carr's update of that phrase: "Media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself."

Internet zombies are taking over the planet. My students file out of the classroom staring into the palms of their hands. Many have difficulty reading the texts I've been successfully assigning for years. Nicholas Carr believes this is due to the plasticity of the human brain, which reprograms itself to skim the surface of content, rather than plunge into its depth.

I've seen mother zombies on the Madison town green. They were sitting on a picnic blanket with their babies. There were no smiles or cuddling. No "goo-goos" and "gaa-gaas" could be heard. As their babies craned their chubby necks in search of stimulation, both mothers sat transfixed by the true objects of their devotion, the screens of their iPhones. The true and deep social triangle of mothers, babies and girlfriends had been replaced by the surreal and shallow network of Internet hyperspace. Their kids will pay the price.

I've seen lover zombies at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. It was a gorgeous September day. The sky was bright blue. The clouds were like cotton. The pond's shallows were aquamarine. The depths were dazzled with sparkle.

Amid this splendor, a young man and a young woman sat on separate boulders. Though they likely arrived together, they were ignoring each other when I walked by, their eyes glued to separate iPhone screens. Not once did either glance up at our troop of students. Not once did they look at the place that inaugurated American nature writing. Not once did they gaze into each other's eyes. Their separate minds were elsewhere.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau wrote of this same spot: "As with our colleges, so with a hundred 'modern improvements;' there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. … Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end." In the background of his thoughts was the magnetic telegraph, which was then changing the way people behaved.

I've seen commuter zombies violating the law in Storrs. The walk between my office and preferred parking lot follows a sidewalk that rises about 20 feet above the main road, Route 195. Quite often, the road is jammed with cars stalled between the red lights at student crosswalks, giving me a chance to look down into each car as I walk past. On any given day, I can plainly see what's taking place beneath each steering wheel in a sample of perhaps 20 cars. In many laps are many fingers working their gadgets, perhaps texting away, or shopping on eBay, or watching YouTube. Periodically, they look up to see what's up ahead, but they never look up to see me peering down at their flagrant violations of state law.

Because 80 percent of college students report that they text and drive, I'm forced to conclude that their plastic brains have been molded by the new reality. They simply can't have nothing happen anymore.

Whatever happened to daydreaming? The psychological place where one's subconscious brain can navigate its own version of the net? Whatever happened to the linear and interrogative process of deep reading? The intellectual place where newspapers were full-sized and widely subscribed, and where opinion columns were 100 words longer?

There's no turning technology back. And I'm OK with that. But when my new iPhone arrives, I'll be on guard against the mental makeover of my neurological tissue.

Robert M. Thorson is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at profthorson@yahoo.com.

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