Technology is good. But too much of anything can be detrimental. What’s the downside of ‘Too Much Information’?

For one thing, we’ve dramatically shifted our attention from the person or the event in front of us. It’s evident everywhere that we’re overly wired (in more ways than one) and connected (but only sort of) to some form of technology. I’m continually amazed at the times and places and ways people are using their cell phones, laptops, iPads, iPods and e-readers. So while I took a mini-holiday from the plugged-in world,  this USA Today article really caught my attention. It’s about….attention.

Everyone knows that our digital age — from the always-on Web to our bleeping PDAs — is here to stay. And most users would agree that these innovations are by their very nature distracting.

Oh, hang on, an e-mail just came in. Be right back.

But just how detrimental to our powers of concentration is our penchant for ping-ponging around the Web and digesting each new tweet?

Sorry, just got the latest from Kim Kardashian. OK, we’re good now. Turning off my iPhone.

All jokes aside, this question has generated a heated debate in tech’s academic circles…

And produced a new book the article features, essentially saying that the internet is having an impact on our brain alright, and though we may be hyper-informed, we are getting more shallow.

Tech pundit [Nicholas] Carr posits that modern technology encourages superficial grazing that, over generations, can rewire the brain to deleterious effect. Here it’s easy to picture a race of Homer Simpsons bumbling through life. (”The Internet is … mmm, doughnuts!”) But Carr is serious.

“One big triumph of human culture was the learned ability to pay attention to one thing for a long time, which the arrival of the book helped promote,” says Carr, calling in from a Colorado vacation. (Carr hasn’t yet developed the habit of switching off his cellphone while on break.) “But the Internet is about skimming and scanning and de-emphasizes our shifting into deeply attentive modes.

“As a species, we are naturally in love with distractions,” he says. “This technology is taking us back to a more primitive state. This is not a good thing.”

But we’ve got a debate here, because author Clay Shirky counters that the ‘cognitive surplus’ just gives us more choices and we’re in control of them (appearances to the contrary).

“Personally, I have no instant messaging, I often turn off Twitter and I never answer calls unless I know who’s calling…”

says  Shirky, who has more self-control than a lot of other people. So who’s more right?

“No question that Carr is driving one of the biggest debates about technology next to privacy issues,” says Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which recently surveyed 895 tech titans about Carr’s thesis and other topics. An overwhelming 75% believed that by 2020, people’s use of the Internet will have enhanced human intelligence.

“The consensus was that new skills will be elevated, such as our ability to hunt for information and look for patterns in broad data,” says Rainie, who, like many of the technorati, started pondering this issue after reading Carr’s opening salvo, a 2008 article in The Atlantic provocatively titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

“Our respondents overwhelmingly felt the answer to that headline was ‘No,’ ” Rainie says. “People can make better decisions because of the Web, but it will be up to them to stay focused to avoid distraction.”

Can we do it?

The article presents a fascinating cross section of tech users and their own anecdotal accounts, which really gives the reader a foothold in the story. Which one do I relate to, the reader wonders (or at least I did),

“What we’re really talking about here is a cultural argument, questions such as whether we’ll read fewer novels now that information is bite-size,” says Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, which explores the act of decision-making at a neurological level.

“There are trade-offs to everything,” he says. “Walking through New York City is just as distracting as surfing the Web, so we take a break from it and hang out in Central Park. Similarly, we have to do better at policing ourselves with technology, of turning things off so we can maximize the upside.”

I was maximizing the upside on this little holiday, and returned to work determined to schedule more down time in each day. And that’s just what it takes these days….an intention to schedule breaks. University of  San Francisco neuroscientist Michael Merzenich says…

“…don’t forget the real world. Go to the park every now and then and just look around. That’s closer to what the human mind was designed for, anyway.”

Right. Beauty, and leisure. Two human needs and simple pleasures.

Have a beautiful and relaxing weekend. Unplugged, if you will…

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....