Letters to the editor

By
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.

Todd Richardson
Director, Program Evaluation Division, Office of Policy Development and Research
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Washington, D.C.

Hanna Rosin’s article has been interpreted by many as a wholesale indictment of federally supported housing interventions. As researchers cited in the story, we wish to offer some additional insight, make clear that we unequivocally support these interventions, and suggest how we might do better.

Our research emphasizes shifts in the geographic distribution of poor and low-income people—many of which are driven by market forces—and the issues raised by geographic shifts in poverty. In Memphis and elsewhere, declines in the population of high-poverty neighborhoods corresponded with increases in the poverty population in formerly low-poverty neighborhoods. Poverty began to decentralize in Memphis between 1990 and 2000; neither HOPE VI redevelopment (most of which occurred after 2000) nor vouchers (which did not increase much until after 2000) materially affected what was happening during that time.

Our motivation was to identify neighborhoods under stress and work with community partners to design and implement interventions, not to model the effects of vouchers on crime. We do not know if low-income residents coming to new neighborhoods with vouchers or because of a HOPE VI relocation are more or less likely to be involved in street crime than other low-income residents. We do know that the well-documented relationship between poverty and street crime offers a basic takeaway lesson for policy makers: neighborhoods experiencing increases in poverty are too often ignored until they reach a higher poverty threshold, crime-prevention strategies must be mobilized early, and promising antipoverty interventions must be taken to scale.

Not mentioned in the article is one such promising intervention: Memphis HOPE, which supports intensive case management for families relocated from the last two public-housing–HOPE VI redevelopments. Outcomes to date for Memphis HOPE case management are encouraging. Less encouraging is the lack of resources to expand this support system.

We also know that crime-suppression efforts by the Memphis Police Department are being linked with supportive and longer-term preventive interventions through, for example, the Domestic Assault Response Team, and that this linkage is producing some remarkable results in high-crime neighborhoods with concentrations of at-risk multifamily housing. The more-typical absence of linkages means (at best) “benign neglect,” which is even more likely when intervention programs are all back in the old neighborhoods. Housing authorities can help support neighborhoods and voucher holders by helping support these linkages. But first we have to understand how the debilitating conditions of public housing risk being re-created in newer and better-­looking, but no less unhealthy, multifamily developments. You do not have to be a former resident of public housing to find yourself in a new “public-housing-like” environment.

In our view, it will take acknowledgement on the part of all stakeholders, and a concerted collaborative effort, to design and deliver strategies that can stabilize neighborhoods and promote economic mobility for the vast majority of poor families that are not included in the Memphis HOPE solution. That’s what “going public” with the story was all about.

Phyllis Betts and Richard Janikowski
The University of Memphis
Memphis, Tenn.

Hanna Rosin replies:

Since my story came out, I have received a barrage of complaints from housing activists and researchers questioning the link between voucher programs and crime. On the whole, I find that these complaints are overly focused on the minutiae and evade the big picture. First, I will say that I spoke to dozens of HUD-hired researchers in Memphis and around the country and read dozens of HUD reports; only a minority of the reports concern the effect of residents on the neighborhoods they move into.

Critics of the story like to say that the number of actual voucher holders is too small to actually affect crime patterns, and that there is no direct evidence linking voucher holders and crime. This is just a numbers game and does not tell the whole story. Many voucher holders are women with children; it’s the people living with them who tend to commit crimes. It’s perfectly possible, for example, that Section 8 residents are in fact the victims of crime. Many more people were displaced from public housing than received vouchers.

The relevant statistics in each city are: how many people lived in public housing at its height in the mid-1990s, and how many people are left there now. In Memphis, the number of people who relocated with vouchers is just under 1,000, but the number pushed out by the demolition of public housing and by other market forces is 40,000.

The real story is about the redistribution of the poor and how it was managed by cities. For that bigger picture, the link between relocation and crime patterns is overwhelming, and cities need to address it. As for the charge that I want to “write off the poor” or “inflame the cynical fears” of racists—I’ve heard it over and over, and it’s a low blow. You cannot have really read my story and still believe that.

Stop and Go

John Staddon writes (“Distracting Miss Daisy,” July/August Atlantic) that according to Smeed’s Law, traffic-fatality rates are a function of population density and the number of cars on the road, and little else. The consequence, explains Staddon, is that government can do little, through signage and traffic laws, to lower traffic-accident rates—a point summarized by the subhead “Why Safety Measures Don’t Improve Safety.” Yet Staddon goes on to argue that a more minimalist, European-style approach to traffic control, adopted here, would produce safer roads. What became of Smeed’s Law?

Kurt Norlin
Irvine, Calif.

John Staddon is so caught up with traffic signs and highway designs that he misses one of the greatest differences between British and American highways. In America, everyone drives—so to speak. In Britain, this is not so. I bet there is not a high school in Britain that has problems creating parking spaces for students. In America, it is the first consideration when making plans for a new school.

The next time Staddon tootles round the U.K., he should keep an eye out for cars full of kids recklessly swerving from lane to lane as if in a video game. I bet a tankful of petrol he will see far fewer in the U.K. than in the U.S. They—more than signs and highway designs—contribute to the difference in fatalities per mile traveled.

Tom Morgan
Franklin, N.Y.

An article in The Huntsville Times (Ala-bama) crystallized for me just how dependent American drivers are on signage to direct their every action. One of our high-school correspondents, who received her license in January, recently wrote an article headlined “A Few $67 Signs May Prevent Some Wrecks.” In it, she advocates adding to traffic lights a $67 sign that reads “Left Turn Yield on Green,” claiming that, without such signs, “there could be a lot of confusion.” That a young driver feels so dependent on signage to remind her of a standard traffic law confirms that we have gone over the top in the proliferation of signs.

John Hubbard
Huntsville, Ala.

John Staddon replies:

Kurt Norlin makes a point that I strove to clarify. The fact that Smeed’s Law worked until the mid-’60s shows that drivers learn to cope with bad roads and heavy traffic. Over a long period, accident rates were therefore more or less independent of road conditions. The fact that Smeed’s Law has worked less well in recent years is probably attributable to improvements in safety technology—chiefly seat belts, chassis design, and air bags—and has little to do with driver behavior. Smeed’s Law shows that drivers learn from and adapt to the driving environment. But drivers may learn bad as well as good things if traffic laws reinforce behavior like looking for signs and cops and at the speedometer, which competes with attending to road conditions.

In the U.K., the Department for Transport lays out explicit standards for sign policy, emphasizing that signs be “used sparingly.” But in the U.S., much discretion seems to be given to states and counties. Hence, signs and speed limits are added and altered in response to local politics and fears of litigation, with no thought to their collective effects.

There must be some reason for the huge disparity in accident rates between the U.K. and the U.S.: if we had the same fatality rates as those in the U.K., we’d see 6,000 or so fewer annual deaths, according to current statistics. Tom Morgan thinks it’s because a smaller proportion of the population drives in the U.K. How then to account for the 50 percent decrease in U.K. fatalities over the past 30 years (versus 20 percent in the U.S. over the same period), while both the proportion and absolute number of U.K. drivers have increased?

Rumsfeld’s legacy

Robert Kaplan is almost totally wrong in painting over Donald Rumsfeld’s wrong and wrongheaded Pentagon reign (“What Rumsfeld Got Right,” July/August Atlantic). Two mammoth wrongs, we learn anew, don’t make even half a right.

Kaplan is complicit in perpetuating the myth of “defense transformation” when he uncritically uses the term to characterize Pentagon activities and (non)thinking. “Transformation” is nothing but self-deceiving, self-serving Pentagon rhetoric intended to convince uninitiated audiences that sweeping overhaul, not mere incremental tweaking of the status quo, is under way.

Some examples of Kaplan’s misjudgments, misrepresentations, and omissions:

He credits Rumsfeld with expanding special-operations forces. He doesn’t address the strategic consequences of such expansion: heightened temptations for more unaccountable, extra­legal covert interventions; further blurring of distinctions between military, intelligence, and police; secrecy-induced weakening of democratic civilian control of the military.

He credits Rumsfeld with expanding America’s overseas bases into nontraditional geographical areas. He doesn’t address how many of these bases are in countries run by sleazy, corrupt regimes whose “friendship” accentuates our hypocrisy and undermines our credibility.

He credits Rumsfeld with creating a Pentagon undersecretary for intelligence “to make relations with the civilian intelligence community more seamless.” He doesn’t address this enterprise’s role in orchestrating “rogue” intelligence operations or providing “cooked” intelligence analyses to support policy preferences.

He mischaracterizes Rumsfeld’s expanded use of contractors in Iraq as harmlessly intended to “create efficiencies in the rear.” He doesn’t question Rumsfeld’s ulterior motives: circumventing tacit troop limits; avoiding accountability; funneling massive amounts of money to corporate political cronies and contributors.

The list goes on … and on. Inexplicably, Kaplan mentions Abu Ghraib only as a passing afterthought, and Guantá­namo not at all. Yet, considering that Rumsfeld reportedly endorsed, encouraged, or perhaps even directed the abuses at those two sites, they most signify his abysmal, strategically destructive performance. Finally, Kaplan totally ignores Rumsfeld’s blatant politicization of the military’s senior ranks, the potentially profound institutional consequences of which are yet to be realized.

Kaplan gets it most wrong when he says: “Rumsfeld was a first-class intellect, but a third-class temperament.” Indeed, Rumsfeld displayed a third-class temperament. But, strategically speaking, he was a fourth-class intellect who may have done lasting damage to the United States. Curiously, his off-putting arrogance kept him from damaging the Pentagon as much as he did the country.

Gregory D. Foster
Professor, National Defense University
Washington, D.C.

Advice and Consent

Cristina Nehring states that current French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s approval ratings have “plummeted to the 30th percentile” (“Un Homme in Full,” June Atlantic). Percentile is determined by an individual’s standing within a comparison group. Being at the 30th percentile indicates one’s value is higher than that of 30 percent of the others in the comparison group.

Glen Carson
Simpsonville, S.C.

Cristina Nehring replies:

Glen Carson is correct. I should have said Sarkozy’s ratings plummeted to the 30 percent range.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/10/letters-to-the-editor/306985/