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Sherlock Holmes and myopia in the digital era

Update: July, 19/2015 - 04:28

by Duong Trong Hue

Sherlock Holmes, a fictional detective born out of Sir Conan Doyle's imagination, is revered for his logical reasoning and sharp observations that have solved many a murder mystery.

Once, his assistant Watson brought him a hat from a crime scene. After meticulously studying the hat, Holmes guessed that the hat's owner was an intelligent man but his fortune was declining. When Watson asked for explanations, Holmes told him that the hat had a large perimeter, which indicated that its wearer had a large brain. The hat also looked old and dusty, which might mean that its owner could not afford to buy a new one.

Similar to a hat, a pair of glasses too signifies intelligence. One can easily verify the idea by looking at cartoons or movies and see that teachers, journalists, researchers, office employees or even industrious students are made to wear glasses.

If Holmes continues his work in the 21st century, what will happen?

Obsolete artefacts will become a fad, large brains will be considered as the consequence of studying too much, and people with glasses will be copious. Holmes and his deduction theory will be an anachronism.

The more digital technologies develop, the more myopia cases we have today. In the last 40 years, the number of myopia cases augmented twice in East Asia.

In Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, the percentage of shortsightedness is 80 per cent and most of it is prevalent in young adults. In South Korea, shortsightedness in 20-year-olds increased from 18 per cent in 1955 to 96 per cent in 2011.

Viet Nam is not an exception. Myopia among schoolgoing children seems to increase precipitously. Just look at any school in an urban area and we can see many pupils wearing thick glasses, obfuscating their innocent and beautiful eyes.

Spending too much time on digital technologies has been argued to have an indirect relation to myopia, but several socio-cultural changes have also been considered contributing factors.

Movies, newspapers, games, and even education have been transforming into digital forms. In addition, social media have become an addiction among youngsters. Digital and virtual technologies have become a way of life, as if they have always been there in our lives.

Myopia makes people dependent on glasses. When they are young, glasses may serve as an ornament, giving them a cool look. However, as one grows old, glasses will become a perennial nuisance. Despite some progress in curing myopia, the number of patients who have been successfully treated is only miniscule in comparison with the ocean of shortsighted people. Perhaps myopia is a price we have to pay for the age of constant disruptive technological progress?

Marshall McLuhan, a renowned communication theorist, once said that technology is an extension of the human body's power and speed. However, he also cautioned that any extension could entail anthropological consequences, with diminishing effects on our bodily functions. For example, the advent of vehicles quelled the human habit of walking and resulted in a different perspective of urban development. Mobile phones are an extension of human mouths and ears, but they also diminish our interpersonal communication skills.

Websites such as Google and Amazon expand our brains' capacity to store information, but are also argued to diminish our ability to focus and to reflect.

In the same vein, glasses are an extension of our vision and they should not replace our eyes. Can we imagine those poetic lines describing human eyes permanently substituting them with a pair of glasses? Is it all right to sing "look into my glasses" or "in my glasses", or "you are my everything?"

If Sir Conan Doyle lived today and wrote more stories, Sherlock Holmes would have had a different reasoning style. The aged hat might be because of its owner spending too much time on social media sites, which led to sunlight deficiency, which is the main cause of myopia. Intelligence is the ability to track online information rather than logical reasoning.

If this is the way our story goes, we may have to repeat the question that has been asked time and again: Are we creating technologies or are technologies creating us? — VNS

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