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Are iPads, smartphones, and the Mobile Web rewiring the way we think?

Multitasking on smartphones, iPads, and the Mobile Web makes some feel smarter and others just more scattered. Is it changing how we think?

By / Staff writer / July 24, 2010

A laptop becomes a hand-held device in Cambridge, Mass. Is the way we think evolving because of iPads, smartphones, and the Mobile Web?

Taylor Weidman/Staff

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It took an offer to appear on a national TV show for Wade Warren to reluctantly give up what he calls his "technology" for a week.

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That was the only way, his mother says, that he would ever pack his 2006 MacBook (with some recent upgrades, he'll tell you), his iPad tablet computer, and, most regretfully, his Nexus One smart phone into a cardboard box and watch them be hustled out the door of his room to a secret hiding place.

Wade, who's 14 and heading into ninth grade, survived his seven days of technological withdrawal without updating his 136 Twitter followers about "wonky math tests" and "interesting fort escapades," or posting on his photography product review blog, or texting his friends about... well, that's private. But he has returned to his screens with a vengeance, making up for lost time.

Though he's vowing that he is going to reduce his screen time, "I haven't really noticed a sharp drop in my computer usage," he concedes in a phone interview, with the faint sound of computer keys clicking as he talks. The idea behind the show, called "Nick News with Linda Ellerbee: Middle School Unplugged," was that time away from gadgets might cause young people like Wade to see the benefits of disengaging from their screens and connecting in person with friends and family.

But it seemed to have the opposite effect on Wade: "I sort of learned the magnitude of how [technology] helps me." Not carrying a phone was a factor in his getting lost on his own in downtown San Francisco, near where he lives, an experience that troubled him.

Wade is a "digital native" whose world – half in cyberspace, half on terra firma – is breeding what might be called a new species of thinkers. The early 21st century may be a watershed moment in how humans learn and communicate, a change perhaps not equaled since the invention of the printing press nearly six centuries ago.

Today's technology may be determining not just how we spend our time: It actually may be "rewiring" the way we think, how we experience the world around us.

Techno-Cassandras fret over what's happening to our attention spans, our ability to think and read deeply, to enjoy time with our own thoughts or a good book.

Techno-enthusiasts scoff that those concerns are nothing new: Socrates, it's pointed out, thought that writing itself would harm a person's ability to internalize learning, the printed word acting as a substitute for true understanding. Technologies such as printing, and in recent decades television and the pocket calculator, have all served time as villains only to become innocuous, commonplace parts of modern life. Why should helpful new technologies from Facebook and Twitter to iPhones and laptops be any different?

Those caught in the middle are aware that something significant is happening, but wary about whether they or others are grasping the big picture. Is technology making us dumb and distracted or turning us into expert information finders and magnificent multitaskers? Is being connected online 24/7 good or bad? Is there even a good way to tell?

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"I think it's subtler than, 'Is [the Internet] making us smarter or making us stupid?' " says Nicholas Carr. "It's how it's making us smarter or how it's making us stupider that's interesting."

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