Josh Hanagarne, Librarian, Salt Lake City Public Library, and Author, The World’s Strongest Librarian, returned to IL after his inspiring closing keynote last year to keynote the final day of IL 2014, asking the rhetorical question, “Is technology changing our brains?” He then immediately answered it with another question: “Who wouldn’t say that technology has changed our brains?”
He has spent a lot of time learning to have an attention span because of his Tourette’s syndrome affliction. For nearly 20 years, Hanagarne read 200 to 300 pages every day. Then in 2008, he enrolled in an MLS program, completing two years worth of courses in one year. During that year, he spent more time online than he had ever spent before. He found that after his college study, it became harder to read what he wanted to for leisure. His brain had changed; suddenly he had to pay close attention to everything. He also noted that TS Eliot observed a similar effect:
This is an example of technology changing a brain.
If you can, think about what your brain does. When you wake up in the morning, everything is recognizable because of your brain. It stores our past and is our decision-making machine. We do well to pay attention to it when it changes. Most of us do not feel that our memory is as good as it used to be. If our memory deteriorates, what do we do? Working memory is what you hold in your head to get something done. Long-term memory is like a file cabinet. The ability to remember is dependent on getting as much working memory into the cabinet as possible.
What characterizes the brain of an addict? Addiction is a hyper-association with something that makes you feel better than it should. It is an unwillingness to be uncomfortable, once you get to the point where you need it. Internet addiction is real. You can log in to Facebook wishing you were doing something else. What would fighting Internet addiction look like? If you feel loneliness and jealousy more frequently (one result of Internet addiction), that is a change in your brain. Does it change our habits? Of course it does! Does it change the way we think about ourselves? What do we mean by that? What if technology limits the way we can think about ourselves? Does it change the nature of experience? It can. Do you go on a hike just to share a photo of going on a hike? Do you get excited because something is happening or because you can share it?
If you strip images out of conversations you rob them of their emotional power. If we are scanning documents we lose the power to generate images in our heads. The most important question we can ask ourselves is how something works, which is necessary to solve any problem.
What does it mean to know something? Knowing where an answer is can feel like knowing an answer. Shame on us if that means you do not know anything besides where the answer is. You must be able to engage with ideas.
What might this mean for libraries? Is something useful if it’s not being used (such as books)? What are libraries for? What is actually at stake is freedom in our mental environments. A library exists to be a symbol of unasked questions and to make people free to ask them. It is a chance to encounter all the questions we may not have the opportunity to ask. There is no off switch to adaptation. By asking questions, you will get better. Our mission is to keep as many minds in the game as possible, both personal and professional.