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Published: Monday, 11/23/2009

Luddite revival

MAYBE being a Luddite isn't such a bad thing.

The original Luddites were 18th-century British artisans who protested the increasing use of the factory system to produce cloth, destroying their livelihood. Considering the nasty working conditions in factories of the time, the Luddites may have had a point, but they were crushed in the name of progress.

Today, the term is used derogatorily (as in, "He's such a Luddite!") to describe anyone who doesn't automatically embrace new advances in technology, which often are thought of as universally beneficial.

But is technology always good, or at least benign?

Some experts believe that growing popularity of devices, especially hand-held, portable devices, that keep people tethered to the Internet for everything from news headlines to maintaining interpersonal relations is changing the way people's brains are wired, and not in a good way. They say the emphasis on brevity on popular Internet sites such as Twitter and Robo.com (which allows people to post video updates of no more than four seconds) is making people less capable of holding in-depth conversations, forming and expressing complex thoughts, or developing deep friendships.

Dr. Elias Aboujaouden told the San Francisco Chronicle recently that he fears people whose personal relationships, as well as knowledge of national and world events, are played out in 140 characters will lose the ability to analyze in depth. People, he said, will become less patient "with more complex, more meaningful information."

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey calls the effect "acquired attention deficit disorder," and there are studies suggesting a possible link between Internet use and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

According to the Chronicle, people also are becoming addicted to the Internet. Some users report becoming anxious if they can't check their messages constantly, and in a recent survey 36 percent of young people (35 years of age or younger) admitted they often visit their online accounts after sex.

Many people rationalize being constantly connected to e-mail, Twitter, FaceBook, and other sites by claiming that multitasking has made them more productive, but a Stanford University study earlier this year found the opposite to be true. Multitaskers, it turns out, are not as productive as people who focus on doing one thing at a time.

Rather than just wasting their time, it appears that people addicted to being hardwired to friends, family, work, or the world may actually be the vanguard of a future ADHD society in which only the once-derided Luddites will be capable of the sort of deep contemplation that leads to advances in civilization.

That's progress for you.

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