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Psychologist Explores Computer Communications Effects on Humans

6 November 1995

j.gif (968 bytes)ames Howard, professor of psychology at The Catholic University of America, was struck by the contrast. He was sitting on the porch of a 200- year-old house in rural Maryland, watching the river where an old steamship once carried supplies to colonial settlers. At the same time, he was hooked up via the Internet to his Washington, D.C., office computer. His historic house was wired with 100-million bit-per-second Ethernet lines to provide broadband networking between the computers in his home and lay the groundwork for a direct Internet connection. "There I was in my old house carrying on my business just as if I were in my office," Howard said. "It made me think about how much life has changed."

It also prompted him to design a new course at Catholic University that studies how people will have to adapt as they socialize, telecommute, shop and even travel via computers and modems. The information society raises interesting questions about privacy, communication and information overload that Howard will explore in the course, slated for the spring semester that begins in January.

"Technology influences the way we go about our business, get around, and interact with each other," he said. "Since we don't need to communicate face to face, or even at the same time, a social dimension to communication is missing in our high-tech communication."

Technology may ultimately alter the way people relate to each other. With so much information available on the Internet, information overload is an area psychology must explore, Howard said. "With the sheer volume of information available, and its poor organization, it's interesting to study how the human mind processes it all. The human brain has memory limitations, processing limitations and attention limitations. That's where overload comes in. The value of the Internet is increasingly not in the information, but in tools that organize it."

The computerized society raises new concerns about privacy and security, he observed. Companies maintain huge databases with information on an individual's buying habits, financial assets, debts and other personal information. Joining news groups and sending electronic mail opens computer users to interactions with strangers across the world, an advantage that may invite problems.

"To what extent does this influence the level of security we feel?" Howard asked. "If I communicate with you on the Internet, it's accessible to lots of people in a way it isn't if I speak to you in an office."

While our new society offers opportunities for psychologists studying how we learn and remember data, it also allows psychologists to apply their knowledge of the human mind to making computers and humans work better together. A number of CUA psychology graduates have gone to work for telecommunications and software companies.

Applied psychology led to radios in the dashboard that we could reach while we were driving our car, Howard said. Now psychologists apply questions of cognition to structuring commands in an operating system, designing displays or databases and icons.

The course will also look at how computer tools and the Internet facilitate psychology research. Psychologists use computers for modeling, data analysis and connecting with peers throughout the world.

New technologies give us data we never had before, Howard said. Magnetic resonance imaging, for one, allows us to study the brain at work and understand more about human behavior.

The course requires no background in psychology and should appeal to anyone with an interest in people and technology, Howard says.


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Revised: 27 October 1997

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