image of twitter cigarette packThere was a rash of headlines on Monday after a psychologist from the University of Stirling, Dr Tracy Alloway, suggested that using Twitter could damage your working memory (or short-term memory), while Facebook was 'good' for it. The Mirror and the Telegraph covered the story as if the research had been completed and was of good quality (although they did use the cover-all-bases term 'may' judiciously). Compare this to the coverage in the Times, which takes a slightly more balanced view and has the crucial transcript of the Q&A session: Journalist: Has anybody actually studied whether Facebook or Twitter affects memory? Alloway: Not that I know of. Journalist: So there's no published evidence? Alloway: There's no published evidence, it's just a hypothesis, I'll be starting a research project in January. And the whole thing, including the research into brain training that was the real purpose of the presentation from Tracy Alloway was expertly covered by the always excellent NHS Choices site.

A bit of common sense never went amiss

This story in particular made me think about how technology gets portrayed as both a monster and a saviour, and how it deserves neither label. The research and buzz around brain training games on PCs, the Nintendo DS, iPhones and iPods seems way over the top when you consider that equally good results have been found for people completing sudoku and crossword puzzles on paper. Technology isn't the important factor in this particular case. Equally, the fear that our brains, and our children's brains, are being altered in some horrific way by technology seems as over the top as people's responses to the clocks, the printing press and the telephone when they first arrived on the scene.1 This is especially true considering that there isn't a single shred of evidence that this is the case.

What technology is

Technology is a tool. It shouldn't be the aim or the goal of anything. I'm quite happy to do my crossword on a Saturday and Sunday the old fashioned way. However, it can be a powerful enabler and there's plenty of evidence that it has social, as well as business, benefits. The key questions to ask when considering any kind of technology-driven solution are:

  • Does it makes things easier?
  • How would I achieve this without the technology?
  • What possible downsides could there be?
  • How likely are they and what have other people experienced?

There's always an answer to that last question. No matter how quick you think you are to try something out, there's always someone ahead of you. And thank goodness for early adopters. They experiment, try things out and work out the best way to use something. They find all the wrinkles and invent creative ways to iron them out. [1] Clocks were criticised for making people lose touch with natural time; the printing press was accused of making people intellectually lazy; and the telephone of making them anti-social.