Two new books consider whether technology is actually advancing society

Chuck Twardy

Three and a half stars

Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I’ll Never Do By Kim Stolz, $24.

Four stars

Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You so, How Do You Know It’s True? By Charles Seife, $27.

A series of studies published recently in the journal Science found that most people would rather do anything than be alone with their thoughts. Scientists at the University of Virginia and Harvard said that a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men they studied voluntarily administered electric shocks to themselves when left alone in a room for between six and 15 minutes. UVA psychologist Timothy Wilson said it’s because “the mind is designed to engage with the world.”

Kim Stolz has a different take on the impulse to self-distract, or -destruct. In Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I’ll Never Do, Stolz writes about the challenge of living without media for a week. She found herself jonesing almost immediately: “My iPhone was a phantom limb.”

She quickly reverted to her hyper-connected ways, but Stolz at least understands that they have compromised her ability to concentrate. In her brisk and amusing analysis of media mania, she admits having what Harvard clinical psychiatry professor John Ratey calls “acquired attention deficit disorder.”

New York University journalism professor Charles Seife sees other ailments threatening, though. Almost since the dawn of the Internet, books have warned of its dangers, and in some ways Seife’s Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You So, How Do You Know It’s True? merely adds another voice to the chorus. But this slim, lively volume from the author of 2000’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea compares the more insidious aspects of the Internet to literal viral infection: “For good and for ill, digital information is now the most contagious thing on the planet.”

Seife’s bugbears are not exactly Stolz’s—he tears into sock-puppet identities and search-engine optimization while she love/hates the applications used for “feeding the beast of self-regard.” Stolz, who achieved ephemeral fame on America’s Next Top Model in 2005—the “gay one,” as she puts it—considers reality TV part of a mind-numbing nexus that includes texting and all manner of social media. And not much separates reality “stars,” who use social media to stoke interest in themselves, and those who obsessively post, tweet and text about their meals, pets and fab nights out with friends—posting, tweeting and texting.

Stolz acknowledges the narcissism of preferring posts and texts to actual conversation, but Seife concludes that the self is not the focus of the Internet. “We, the consumers, don’t realize that we’ve been removed from the center of the media universe,” he writes, arguing that content is aimed at Google algorithms to maximize ad revenue. He also considers “games” like FarmVille and applications like Foursquare examples of Skinnerian conditioning. They are not viruses but more complicated parasites that burrow into our brains and make us spend money.

The greater danger, though, comes from the mangling of useful information. Seife notes that in 1980, there were 1.25 public relations professionals for each journalist, but by 2009 there were 3.6. Meanwhile, producing useful information, as journalists should, is costly, while aggregating links to generate page views is more profitable. Worse, the Internet’s bottomless trough of random facts and like-minded “friends” makes it easy for many to ignore real information: “In other words, the Internet is amplifying our quirks and our odd ideas,” Seife writes. “Bit by bit, it is driving us toward extremism.”

So, while we’re busy performing versions of ourselves on our smartphones, rather than actually communicating, other forces are busy manipulating us. “Are we poised to become a generation of sociopaths, completely shut off from the world of human emotion?” Stolz wonders. That might be the least of our worries.

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