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It’s A Smiley!

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Does Information Technology (IT) make you happy? Behind this seemingly trivial question is a refusal to take for granted the benefits of IT. We know how useful it is for business, or how cool it is to surf the Web, but that does not mean people overall are happy to be online. Some studies have shown that online time is not good for the brain. Is the Internet good overall for the society?

British organisation Chartered Institute for IT commissioned a study to answer such questions. The general impression among the public (aided by media reports) is that IT has a negative impact on society, but little research has been done on this topic so far. Here is what the institute found out. IT has an empowering role, which leads to freedom, control and overall life satisfaction. Much of the betterment in life satisfaction comes from ‘IT flows' to those with lower incomes or fewer educational qualifications. The biggest increase in life satisfaction by using IT is for these groups. Women gain more than men from IT, particularly in developing countries. The biggest increase in life satisfaction is for those who are new to the uses of IT, and particularly through social networking. The study also found a statistically significant link between IT access and increased life satisfaction, which makes IT relevant beyond its economic gains.

The findings only make the larger debate more complicated. How do we balance the benefits and disadvantages of spending time online? The answer depends on whether the Internet truly has a serious negative impact on our brains. There are arguments on both sides but no clinching evidence. But scientists are investigating this question from several angles, and the next few years could bring more evidence one way or another.

At the moment, there are two raging debates, centred around two recent books. One — started by Nicholas Carr with his book The Shallows — is on whether too much online time changes our brain structure and thus our ability for deep thought. The second — started by the book Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky — is on how surfing the Internet compares with watching television. We spend a lot of time watching television anyway; is it good if the Internet takes away some of this time?

The Shallows says digital culture makes us shallow by rewiring our brains. There is considerable evidence behind his argument. Just spending time online is not the problem. A preponderance of digital gadgets keeps our brains busy even during off-time, depriving it of the breaks necessary for learning and memory consolidation. Experiments with rats have shown that those who are busy all the time learn less. But didn't we have distractions a few decades ago? Or a few centuries ago?

Cognitive Surplus argues on the other side. We have been spending too much time watching television and this did nothing to boost our intellect. Now, people are watching television less and are spending more time on the Internet. This is a chance to get social interactions back into our lives, even if they are online. Social interactions are known to be good for the brain. This book also misses the point that people can discriminate between mindless activities and engage themselves with television. Whatever is the final verdict, studies like that of BCS could put a new spin on the argument against the Web. Watch this space.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 04-10-2010)

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