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Benefits and Risks of Computers

Nowadays, it is becoming increasingly hard to imagine the day-to-day life without computers. Particularly, people of any age use them on a daily basis in order to read news, watch movies, do homework, socialize, etc. Today, with the ease of access to computers, everyone can use it for their own purpose, be it work or entertainment. However, it is a rather disputable question whether frequent computer usage is advantageous or disadvantageous for people. Some critics argue that computers are becoming more destructive than beneficial for its users. For example, Nicholas Carr in his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (2008) emphasizes the adverse affects of web loafing while the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass in his autobiographical article “Learning to Read and Write” (1845) highlights the importance of deep reading of books. However, there are many educators who lay stress on the benefits from using a computer for personal purposes. Trent Batson in his “Response to Nicholas Carr’s ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’” (2009) and Sherry Tuckle in “How Computers Change the Way We Think” (2004) describe many positive tendencies with the emergence of computer technology. Thus, the importance of analysis of the debate about benefits and harm of the computer’s use is apparent.

Computers change the way people read and comprehend books. A widely read writer, Nickolas Carr posted his article in July/August 2008 Atlantic magazine where he debates that overuse of computers increases the difficulty to concentrate on a certain page on the web while reading a book becomes a real case of a problem. “Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle”, writes Carr in his article. Carr is troubled that due to the fact that people search the web and hop from one page to another, without merely understanding the content, they are wasting the gift of reading and profound comprehension of the context. Frederick Douglass claims that “once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Books gave him knowledge and understanding of freedom, they helped him become the prominent struggler for abolition. While agreeing that computers change the way we think and read, Trent Batson contradicts that there is nothing bad in this change. He disputes that the new way of reading transfers the way people communicate by using “the natural ways that humans learn: through oral interaction and in a group”.

Computers change the way people think. Quoting media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Carr disputes that computers shaped the process of thinking chipping away capacity for concentration and meditation. Carr expresses his concern with a metaphor: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski”, which means that, while he has access to broader information, he cannot go deeply into analysis of that information. Batson contradicts that this is not a bad thing that people think and talk the new way. He calls the new phenomenon ‘a new hybrid orality’ when people comprehend one piece of information from the web while conversing with others. “We find ourselves creating knowledge continually and rapidly as our social contacts on the Web expand. We have re-discovered new ways to enjoy learning in a social setting”, he emphasizes. The single main idea of Turkle’s article is that computers change the way people think as the title suggests. However, while it is a disadvantage for some people, it is an advantage for others. For example, PowerPoint software helped people think in a clearer bullet point way, with deeper understanding of the material. Turkle says that a whole new culture of presentation appeared where appearance is more significant than content. In this case, whileunderstanding benefits and importance of using PowerPoint software for teachers and adult students, she fears that this tool distracts young students from deeper thinking and conversation. The most active development of people’s mental processes and psychological formation occur in the young age when the brain is ready to absorb as much information as needed to provoke critical thinking and analysis. This is similar to the case with Frederick Douglass whose reading of books in young age formed his personality when he was older. Douglass writes that at the age of twelve, “the thought of being a slave began to bear heavily upon my heart” when he starts reading “The Columbian Orator”. Books influenced Douglas’s critical thinking and changed his points of views provoking a development of personality with hatred to slavery and wish for abolishment.

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Even the process of typing and word processing changed the way people think. Turkle recalls her conversation with a student who admitted that typing on the typewriter required better thinking upfront of the words she typed because it was impossible to erase and reconstruct the sentence as with computers. Turkle admits that many professional writers cannot imagine themselves without their laptops, “yet the ability to quickly fill the page, to see it before you can think it, can make bad writers even worse”. Carr debates that with a machine, even the writing style changes becoming tighter and more telegraphic. Of course, this influences the thinking flow in human’s brain. At the same time, according to Carr’s article, computers influence people’s thinking “as operating ‘like clockwork” making us stop listening to our senses and leaving creative thinking.

With the emergence of computers technology, the way people socialize and communicate also changed. Turkle speaks out in favor of new social networks, which help youngsters express themselves online, which is way better then to use drugs and alcohol out in the streets. However, she warns that overuse of such networking can provoke losing one’s self and creating problems with real friendship. On the other hand, Carr opposes this position with a statement that “net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure” seeing behind the curtain marketing manager’s drive to attract attention to loads of ads on the Net.

Computer is making people smarter. However, this statement can be debated. According to Carr’s challenging article, Google, or Net in general, does make people dull. He points out that in the process of reading particular news on the web or just searching for something, the Net surrounds its content with blinking advertisement, different hyperlinks and “other digital gewgaws”, which trash human’s attention and comprehension. Turkle also mentions the digital traces users leave when they search the web. These traces give an opportunity to present even more advertising information to the reader. It also raises a problem of privacy intrusion while young people do not seem to care much for their surveillance and privacy rights. Contrariwise, Batson strongly contradicts the statement that Net is making people stupid. He insists that Google is making people smarter recapturing and recreating humans’ abilities giving people new ways to think. He emphasizes: “What Google and the Web are doing is helping us re-claim our human legacy of learning through a rapid exchange of ideas in a social setting. Google is, indeed, making us smarter as we re-discover new ways to learn.” Still, Carr dissents saying that “the faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements”, and it is in their economic interest to slow down pace of reading and drive readers to distraction.  Turkle contests that there is more benefits from using the web, which creates “knowledge that usually exists not in final, authoritative, single-author text blocks but in the aggregate of wisdom from many sites”.

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Having analyzed the viewpoints of the above mentioned researchers, it is still difficult to say distinctly whether computers are more beneficial then destructive or vice versa. Analyzing pros and cons of computer usage, Turkle debates that more important is not to label every change as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather estimate them in the light of particular human purpose they serve. At this point, it is important to evaluate in what group of people and for what purpose the computers are used. For example, there are many benefits for researchers and educators who use the Net for the purpose of their work when they can have access to many different sources in order to accumulate their knowledge. While Nickolas Carr and Frederick Douglass encourage people to devote more time to reading books, which give us more meaningful understanding, Trent Batson and Sherry Turkle argue that computers open up doors to a broad source of all kinds of information people never had before.