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Our Brains on Google

Nicholas Carr (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” July/August Atlantic) put into words the unease I’ve felt since the school night a few years back when our home Internet connection went down. My eighth-grader’s assignment that evening was simple: write one page, single-spaced, on any historical figure from World War I. When attempts to resuscitate our browser failed, I swept my daughter off to the library. “This will be fun,” I told her. Confronted by rows of nonfiction books, she did her own version of a hard-drive crash. “They’re too long,” she wailed. “I only need a page.” Laziness was not the issue. Here was an A student, a voracious reader, raised in a home where computer time and TV watching have always been doled out. As the night wore on, I realized that she really did not know how to read or even skim a nonfiction book to distill key facts. Why would she have to, with succinct summaries of any topic imaginable a mouse click or two away? As a writer myself, I use Google every day, but I do worry about what we are giving up with all this speed and efficiency. As Carr so wisely notes, from the fuzziness of contemplation come some of our best ideas.

Julie Lake
Austin, Texas

Nicholas Carr correctly notes that technology is changing our lives and our brains. The average young person spends more than eight hours each day using technology (computers, PDAs, TV, videos), and much less time engaging in direct social contact. Our UCLA brain-scanning studies are showing that such repeated exposure to technology alters brain circuitry, and young developing brains (which usually have the greatest exposure) are the most vulnerable. Instead of the traditional generation gap, we are witnessing the beginning of a brain gap that separates digital natives, born into 24/7 technology, and digital immigrants, who came to computers and other digital technology as adults.

This perpetual exposure to technology is leading to the next major milestone in brain evolution. More than 300,000 years ago, our Neanderthal ancestors discovered handheld tools, which led to the co-evolution of language, goal-directed behavior, social networking, and accelerated development of the frontal lobe, which controls these functions. Today, video-game brain, Internet addiction, and other technology side effects appear to be suppressing frontal-lobe executive skills and our ability to communicate face-to-face. Instead, our brains are developing circuitry for online social networking and are adapting to a new multitasking technology culture.

Gary Small, M.D.
Director, UCLA Memory & Aging Research Center
Los Angeles, Calif.

Modern Mogul

What Mark Bowden fails to perceive (“Mr. Murdoch Goes to War,” July/August Atlantic) is that the likes of Rupert Murdoch are actually taking us back to a more normal era of hucksterism (i.e., commercialism) in reporting. The period of white-collar journalism that The Wall Street Journal symbolized came at a price. The dominance of single newspapers in metropolitan areas, and the high polish of their college-educated reporters, led to a sense of disenfranchisement by the general public. Once the “Gray Ladies” of our world had their say, the substance of their reporting became newsworthy in itself, and the average man on the street became a distant observer.

Although The Wall Street Journal and other major subscriber-bleeders like The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times continue to hold the Internet at arm’s length, their survival depends on embracing the Web. The only thing The Journal is firewalling by not allowing free access to its site is its own vanity, a much devalued asset.

Ralph Cohen
Seal Beach, Calif.

Opting out?

Sandra Tsing Loh’s critique of Linda Hirshman (“I Choose My Choice!,” July/August Atlantic) fails to engage Hirshman’s argument. Hirshman’s concern is that women at elite institutions—who, like their male classmates, are in the best position to win an election or perform groundbreaking surgery—are turning down a historic opportunity for gender parity in favor of a relatively low-stress, enjoyable life. Although unquestionably an important fact about the world, it is largely beside Hirshman’s point that many women struggle through cubicle jobs and that stocking shelves is not very rewarding. Yet this theme animates nearly the entirety of Tsing Loh’s response.

As a white male lawyer educated at America’s top schools, I would very much like to see my female classmates end up as politicians, tenured professors, and law-firm partners. A few will; many will not.

M. Ryan Calo

Washington, D.C.

Sandra Tsing Loh replies:

Actually, it is M. Ryan Calo who fails to engage my argument. My point is that Hirshman’s focus on what Calo calls “gender parity” within the occupational elite causes her (and Calo) to ignore the wide and growing class disparities between the occupational elite, made up of men and women, and the rest of the country. Remember: 96.5 percent of women earn less than $75,000 a year. As I noted, Neil Gilbert, whose book I praised, sees the occupational elite’s ideology—in which equality between men and women supersedes equality between social classes—as “the triumph of feminism over socialism.” Perhaps Calo should be less worried about the very small number of politicians, tenured professors, and law-firm partners of either gender and more worried about, say, the secretaries and office support staff (the vast majority of whom are women) who no doubt toil under his very nose. They may have a less rosy view of the fun, glamorous world of work than do he and Hirshman.

Debating Crime

Hanna Rosin advances an untested thesis (“American Murder Mystery,” July/August Atlantic)—that public-housing residents living in Memphis, Tennessee, are largely responsible for an increase in crime when they relocate to surrounding neighborhoods.

I am responsible for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s research on how HUD programs affect the people and places we’re charged with helping, and I read Hanna Rosin’s article not only because I have a keen interest in the subject matter but also because I was surprised no one at HUD had been contacted by TheAtlantic in preparation of the story. Had Rosin made the effort to call, I would have been happy to share with her the body of research, both inside and outside HUD, that examines how deconcentrating poverty through the department’s HOPE VI, Moving to Opportunity, and Housing Choice Voucher programs impacts crime.

HUD has implemented a number of regulations intended to both discourage resident crime and protect residents from being victimized. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld one such rule that permits local housing authorities to exercise a tough “one strike and you’re out” policy, allowing for the quick eviction of tenants who engage in criminal activity. Public-housing residents and families receiving housing vouchers have average annual incomes of just $12,000. The housing assistance they receive is extremely important to them, and the threat of eviction is a strong disincentive to commit crime.

Neither the research Rosin cites, nor any other study that I am familiar with, directly links vouchers with crime. Quality research on the HOPE VI program finds that most public-housing residents who relocate with a voucher move into lower-poverty and safer neighborhoods. This research certainly points to how we can make our programs better, but on balance, the benefits outweigh the negatives. Which leads me to ask: What is Rosin ultimately suggesting? That decades of public policies and programs designed to deconcentrate poverty in America ought to be reversed in favor of those that would restore the high-poverty neighborhoods of our past? Should we just write off the poor? Sadly, the tone and tenor of Rosin’s article appear designed to inflame the cynical fears of those who would seize on issues of race and class to fuel their bias.

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