I was a hostage to my own connectedness. My attention span was getting shorter and shorter. —William Powers, author of 'Hamlet's BlackBerry'
OGDEN — It gets us where we're going, tells us how to get there, entertains us on our way and, at times, lets us stay put in the first place.
It connects us, instantly, with friends and family across the globe. It heats our homes, washes our clothes and keeps our lawns green.
The term "technology" is broad, but as machines become more capable, are humans becoming less?
After that question was posted on Facebook, Deseret News readers responded that with the advent of modern technologies their handwriting has suffered, their ability to spell without a checker has decreased, their friends and family can't hold a conversation without distraction, they rely almost exclusively on mapping software to find addresses and at times have had a sense of panic when they can't access their cellphone contacts.
"My siblings, I don't even know their cellphone numbers off the top of my head," said Jordan Liau, 24, of Provo.
Ten years ago he could produce the phone numbers of his friends and neighbors from memory. But today, if pressed, he said he'd be lucky to remember more than 10. Like most smartphone users, making calls is only one feature on the device Liau checks hourly for text messages, emails relating to his job with BYU Catering or updates on his friends' Facebook pages.
"I could probably be without Facebook for a day," he said. "It wouldn't kill me; I would just feel separated."
In William Powers' opinion, that separation may be just what the doctor ordered.
Powers, author of "Hamlet's BlackBerry," spoke to Weber State University students Thursday about finding a balance between their physical and digital lives. He said he began thinking about the topic of his book — which encourages people to create unplugged "Walden Zones" (from a Henry David Thoreau novel) in their homes — after noticing subtle changes in his own life.
"I was a hostage to my own connectedness," Powers said, standing in front of an image of a man with a cellphone taped to his head. "My attention span was getting shorter and shorter."
At first, it was his work as a writer and journalist that was affected, but in time he noticed the problem had extended to his family life as well.
"We were kind of drifting away from each other in the digital age that's supposed to bring us together," Powers said. "Old-fashioned togetherness will always have supreme value."
A recent global report, released Thursday by Ipsos Public Affairs and OREO, echoes Powers' concerns. According to the report, most parents agree that technology helps their family stay connected, but 48 percent say that while spending time together their family members are distracted by technology.
Even more troubling, 23 percent of parents say they communicate with their children more through technology than in-person interaction.
For Powers, one solution was to enact an "Internet sabbath."
Each weekend, he said, the family modem is unplugged, plunging the home into two days of digital darkness. While it was difficult at first, Powers said in time his family looked forward to the weekend and, he noted, looked forward to Monday as well. While a sabbath may not be feasible for everyone, Powers said a self-imposed digital routine makes time in both worlds more productive and enjoyable.
"You'll get more out of it if you're in control of it," Powers said.
Powers' remarks were held in connection with a course at Weber State titled "Are Machines Making Us Stupid?" which is taught by WSU faculty members Luke Fernandez, Susan Matt and Scott Rogers. The course is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and combines a classroom curriculum with a lab experience to observe students' efficiency in varying levels of connectivity.
The technology problem is not unique to our day. With every advancement in technology — like the telegraph, railroad, radio and Internet — society has reacted to its implications. The WSU course, Fernandez said, attempts to examine these changes through historical accounts and literature. Recently, students read Bram Stoker's "Dracula," which is structured as a collection of diary entries, phonograph recordings and mailed correspondence.
"That text is full of references to technology," Fernandez said.
Fernandez said the course is presented as a question and not a statement because, in many ways, determining whether people are more or less intelligent as a result of technology isn't black and white.11 comments on this story
"Yes, they may be making us smarter sometimes, but they also may be detracting from cognitive abilities," he said. "There is an idea that all technology is progressive but that doesn't mean that every change doesn't also have regressive effects."
The course is only a few weeks into the semester and Fernandez said the goal isn't to definitively answer the question of technology's effect on intelligence. Rather, he said, the trio of professors are interested in helping students find the level of connection where they can work most effectively.
For some students, that means absolutely no digital distractions. For others, a little music and social networking can go a long way.