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Russell Frank: This Is Your Brain in Cyberspace

by on January 13, 2012 6:00 AM

I once had a chat with a 4-year-old about the dangers of demon television.

“Know what happens if you watch too much TV?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, without taking her eyes off the screen. “My brains will turn to oatmeal.”

So long as she knew.

That was in the 1980s. The 4-year-old now teaches Japanese at the University of Vermont, proving, perhaps, that there are worse things your brain can turn into than hot cereal.

These days, it’s the Internet that’s going to cause our minds to go all to mush, according to an assortment of Lord High Hand Wringers. The most recent of these jeremiads is “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” by Nicholas Carr. Before that there was “Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut,” by David Shenk.

The problems with all this connectedness, the critics complain, are that it is difficult to distinguish reliable information from disinformation, that we are rarely alone with our own thoughts, and that all that time spent with our noses buried in screens large and small is time not spent with our noses in roses.

Just last Sunday, Pico Iyer wrote in the New York Times about the ways in which we are trying to cut the cord: by working offline more so we’re not tempted to text, tweet or check email, or by building vacations around escaping from technology. (I now regard backpacking or river rafting as checking into digital detox.)

Once, I spent large chunks of my free time reading books, Now, I find out that Cubs legend Ron Santo has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and check out his season-by-season statistics at Baseball-reference.com. That Web page links to the stats of other third basemen who put up comparable numbers. From Santo I go to Graig Nettles, from Nettles to Ken Boyer, from Ken to his brother Clete. And just like that, I have, in the words of the “Car Talk” guys, wasted another perfectly good hour.

Other people squander similar amounts of time on Imdb.com (Internet Movie Data Base) or RottenTomatoes.com, not to mention all the fun you can have looking at amusing clips of dogs, cats and babies (or Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie) on YouTube.

I don’t disapprove of these pursuits outright. One of the highlights of the holidays is gathering with my children ‘round the electronic hearth to laugh at their favorite YouTube clips. This past Yuletide, they introduced me to “Drunk History” and to the talking dog who has to listen to his master describe all the fabulous treats he’s not going to get to eat (86 million views). It’s all fine -- as long as I remember to crack a book once in a while, or take a hike.

I began getting in the mood to write this column by scanning various news sites. The New York Times, predictably, was fairly sober and industrious, but things got weird when I jumped to the Huffington Post, which has a flair for provocative headlines. Among the stories I was tempted to read, but resisted were:

Video Shows Russell Brand Removing Wedding Ring

WARNING: You May Be Sleeping On The Wrong Pillow

TSA Defends Confiscation Of Woman's Cupcake

Kardashian Replaced By Dog

and

Rick Santorum Now Selling His Sweater Vests..

The only one that piqued my curiosity enough to actually click on it was:

Heidi Klum's Pants Leave Us Speechless

Heaven help me, but I had to see those pants. Not surprisingly, doing so was majorly anti-climactic. Picture the most radically flared jeans from the age of bell-bottoms. The writer denounced Klum’s trousers as a major fashion faux pas, but in the interactive spirit of our times, she invited readers to weigh in. At the time I looked at it, 92 viewers had “liked” the story in that moronic Facebook way, 86 had shared it with Facebook friends, 25 had emailed it and 17 had tweeted about it.

From the HuffPost, I went to Slate, which posed this burning question:

Should Prison Inmates Have the Right to Masturbate?

I also liked this roundup of “the week’s most interesting Slate stories”:

Taking Stock of Romney, Banishing Pepper, and Folding Marilyn Monroe’s Pants

Over at the Los Angeles Times, I learned that a man named Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-bop-bop had been arrested for possession of marijuana and other offenses. The best part of this story was the photo credit: “Admit it, he just looks like a Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-bop-bop...”

But the most stunning headline of all was this one from the CNN Website:

Ski season seeking snow

Stop the presses!

The oatmealization of my brain proceeds apace. On the plus side, my surfing session kept me amused, which surely counts for something in these troubled times in which we live.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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