Thursday, December 29, 2011


There was also a personal aspect of that question: How was I going to pay attention to a game that lasts five days? I'm a typically over-connected modern worker bee. Lately, as the trips run into each other and I go 50, 70 days on without one off, I often feel frantic, wondering what I might be missing. I have two phones. An iPad and a Kindle. Three MacBooks. I take my iPhone into the bathroom, to text and play Zombie Gunship. Sometimes I take a call, hitting mute to flush. I use airport urinals with a phone in the other hand. I compulsively check my email. At dinner. In bed. At funerals. No, really, I checked messages at my great-aunt Thelma's funeral. I was a pallbearer. Lately, though I haven't told anyone, I've been having trouble reading. Half-finished books pile up. I open stories in browsers and get a few paragraphs in before I'm distracted by another link, another pop-up video. I'm an addict.

As I settle into my seat on my way to London, the plane over the Atlantic, I start a book called "Hamlet's BlackBerry," which hypothesizes that all our devices are removing the moments before and after important events, amputating both anticipation and reflection, robbing our lives of depth. I feel like the writer is inside my head. There's a passage about each generation fearing the new, describing how Socrates believed the invention of writing would be the end of creativity and critical thinking, the permanence of words calcifying ideas. Writing was to Socrates what video games are to current parents. This is fascinating stuff, just the sort of modern philosophy I'm usually drawn to, but my strobing mind distracts me. I mark my place and never pick it back up again. Oh, and I'm reading a book about the poisonous effect of our devices … on my iPad. Such is the depth of my sickness as I leave passport control at Heathrow. And yet, as my cab heads straight to Lord's Cricket Ground, I still feel in control. I mean, for instance, I don't imagine this trip will lead me to reevaluate my life in a Buddhist temple on the seventh floor of a north London public housing building.


It occurs to me, sitting in this grandstand, that maybe I'm looking for answers in the wrong direction.

For a few days now, I've been focusing on the game itself, reporting on the state of Test cricket. It obviously doesn't fit in a modern world. People don't have five hours, much less five days, to be disconnected. One look around the stands and you realize many don't have five minutes, or at least they think they don't: a parade of kids eating ice cream cones, holding hands with dads on BlackBerrys. The game is out of sync with today. But maybe it's deeper than that. What if it isn't the world that's changing?

What if it's us? Gary Small, a professor at UCLA, is at the cutting edge of research on what our devices are doing to our brains. His findings are terrifying. The way we ingest information is changing us. When we read online, our mind, instead of focusing on the text, is subconsciously making thousands of instant decisions, each hyperlink or embedded video causing a series of chemical reactions: Yes or no? Yes or no? Connect. Disconnect. Connect. Disconnect. "Our brains get trained to work like a search engine," Small says. "We jump from idea to idea. We're not thoughtful. We're not pondering. In some ways, we're less creative."

Like a muscle, the brain strengthens the part of itself that it uses the most. This isn't new. Scientists can point to the invention of the hand-held tool hundreds of thousands of years ago, and a corresponding growth in the size of the frontal lobe. The Internet is really just a sophisticated hammer. What will future anthropologists find out about our brains?

The good news is that, for digital immigrants -- people who grew up without these stimuli -- a few weeks away will allow the brain to return to normal. But digital natives -- those who've always known the Internet and smartphones -- might be forever different. Before the age of 20, there's a significant amount of pruning of the synapses. The generation coming of age now might have permanently changed its brains. Studies show humans are losing some ability to interpret facial cues. What's next? Will people one day be unable to read a novel? Or, say, watch a five-day sporting event?

"Digital natives are very impatient with mental tasks that involve delayed gratification," Small says. "That's what you're going to see with cricket. It will be very challenging for this long form of cricket to survive, except among a few aficionados. What's happening to the brains of young people is going to affect the fan base as well as the player base."

That's a new thought, a frightening one. Separate from the economics of television and advertising, from the money pulling at the players and the time required of fans, the biggest threat to Test cricket might be the reconstituted brains of those who watch it.

The face in the mirror is our own. We created a world without space for a pastoral game. We created a world without enough hours in the day. Forget great generals and politicians; unintended consequences are the true drivers of history. When the clock was invented, there was no minute hand. Nobody really needed minutes until around 1700. The modern wristwatch was invented in about 1820. What happened in between? The Industrial Revolution. For the first time in history, people needed to be at work on time. Minutes mattered. Now seconds matter. So we check our email every few moments, even feeling phantom vibrations in our pocket -- like pain in an amputated limb -- wondering what we're missing, even as we're doing something we profess to love.