Devil's Plaything is a fictional thriller, but the questions the novel explores—how technology is affecting our behavior, relationships, memories, and attention span, are all too real, and just as stirring.
Matt Richtel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times, cartoonist, and novelist, crafted the main conspiracy of his new novel based on the technology research he does as a journalist, focusing on the way that heavy technology use affects human behavior and brain chemistry.
The book opens with a sobering premise: "The number of people suffering acute memory loss is doubling every fifteen years. Shipments of computer memory are doubling every two years. Are these two statistics related? More than you dare imagine."
Richtel explained the science behind the novel's idea at a Tuesday book reading at Books Inc in Palo Alto. Increased technology use, he said, can hinder memory. When humans hear cell phones rings or receive text messages their brains release dopamine and adrenaline, so they become habituated to the ring. These bursts of adrenaline also releases a chemical called cortisol. There is research that suggests increased cortisol levels can kill cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is a gateway to memory.
"I started to take these things into account and use all this science to make the book into a thriller that has some science grounding," Richtel said.
Richtel uses Silicon Valley and technology as a canvas for his thrillers, in order to ground the reader in some form of reality. The main protagonist is Nat Idle, a San Francisco journalist with an unused medical degree. Nat's sidekick is his grandmother Neda, who suffers from dementia but is carrying around a dangerous secret.
"I was toying with a character who had a medical school background because when you write a thriller you force readers to suspend disbelief," Richtel said. "I tried to cue to something that readers feel connected to by making him a doctor. I managed to have facts I could throw in."
Although his writing often depicts the side effects of technology use, Richtel admits that is not "anti-technology", but just wants to continue to ask questions about technology.
"There is pretty compelling research that suggests that our devices have behavioral and neural-chemical impact," Richtel explains. " Science clearly shows there are side-effects involved in heavy technology use. I see even in my own life fractured attention and the lure of device. There is enough research for people to begin to ask questions about their behavior and in particular how they raise their kids around devices."
Scientists are now awakening to the idea that not all technology will make us more productive.
"Technology is like food," Richtel said. "We obviously need food to survive but some food is brussel sprouts and some food is twinkies. Some technology use is good for us and some is gluttonous."
Richtel also mentioned some insights from the New York Times article, "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction" which warns that heavy technology use can greatly affect the attention span of children, whose frontal lobes are still developing. He mentioned the findings of Dr. Michael Rich, the director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health, who suggests that heavy technology use forces children to missing "boredom" and "quite moments" can help children learn to process and analyze information.
Although the book reviewers tend to focus on the technological aspect of the novel, Richtel emphasizes that that is not the main theme of the novel.
"To me the book is summarized by the following three words : everybody has secrets," he said. "As much as the book is a thriller with a technology hook, it’s about us and grandmas; how we go through our lives with sometimes shadowy existences, sometimes with secrets big and small."