OGDEN -- It's not a question you would expect from a top-tier techie:
Are there benefits to turning off our smart phones, our MP3 devices, our laptops and our tablet computers? Would a deliberate Internet disconnect free our brains for higher-quality concentration and even deep thoughts?
Are machines making us dumb?
Luke Fernandez, Weber State University manager of Program and Technology Development, had just such a thought after a conversation with a top WSU official about how to increase connectivity on campus.
"How about finding places on campus where we can be disconnected?" Fernandez said. "How about creating places without these tempting distractions? That's part of what I wanted to explore."
This semester, Fernandez is teaching a WSU course titled "Are Machines Making Us Stupid?" He's funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Fernandez teaches with colleagues Susan Matt, who chairs the history department, and Scott Rogers, an associate professor of English.
"Arguably, the Internet, combined with better search engines, gives us greater accessibility to facts than ever before," Fernandez said.
"The potential downside that we are exploring in the course is if you spend too much time online, your life can be very outwardly oriented. We don't think inwardly. Sometimes sitting in a quiet room, thinking about ideas, is a way of achieving greater depth of inner thought, rather than going online and surfing over the surface, messaging each other while looking at emails and talking on the phone."
The course focuses on modern and historical readings about how technology shapes and changes people's lives. Fernandez also tests his 27 students for productivity in settings with varied Internet access: unrestricted access, access to limited sites related to the assignment and no access. Students all seem to have their own levels of Internet access that give them the best results, Fernandez said, and testing will continue through the end of the semester.
In a survey given early in the course, 52 percent of the students said they would like to be more connected than they are, but would not want to be "hyper-connected." Seventy-eight percent used a mobile phone often, and 52 percent used Facebook often. More than 40 percent confirmed they would subscribe to more expensive phone plans if they could afford that.
"But at the same time, many students would also say in an ideal world, they would also like to have more of a 'quiet remove' where they were less connected to the world around them," Fernandez said.
Ben Robbins, 18, a history major from South Weber, likes the course.
"It's just an interesting question to think about, whether technology and over-stimulation really does raise our productivity or hurt our fulfillment in life. For me, I actually deleted Facebook a few months ago, but I've been around people who can't turn their cell phones off, and will freak out if they can't Google things. Half of America has a smart phone now. I could see how that could be really convenient, but also problematic."
Robbins has succumbed to the perpetual lure of the Internet.
"Ever since I got a laptop with WiFi, I get distracted, and I would rather go on the Internet than do something I need to do, like write a paper. The papers are not as good if I'm clicking around or someone contacts me on the chat function."
Matt is glad her own undergraduate experience was less distracted.
"I remember the flow experience where you get lost and lose track of time, and you are utterly absorbed in what you are doing," Matt said. "I find it harder to have today. Every so often, the email alert dings, or I'm tempted to check Facebook. I never get to that level of absorption."
Work and relationships are both altered through technology, she said.
"I wonder if our lives are lived more through screen than through reality," Matt said. "Everything is mediated through screen. I wonder if we aren't missing some valuable experiences by having them digitally when reality is at least as good if not better."
Eladio Bobadilla, 25 and an integrated studies major living in Ogden, said some technology has benefits.
"Through Facebook, I am able to connect on a daily basis to family and friends who are living in other states or even other countries," Bobadilla said.
"I am also more productive and able to find more time for my family and friends. In other ways, technology can be a tremendous distraction. I have learned that like almost everything else in life, moderation is key."
Bobadilla said he was intrigued to learn that technology has been controversial throughout history.
"People used to fear writing, because they knew it would deeply affect storytelling," he said.
The telegraph's invention upset people, too, Matt said.
"Some people thought everyone would be bombarded with useless gossip that would not enhance their lives. We are not the first generation to grapple with the issues raised by revolutionary technology."