Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What Is the Internet Doing to Our Brains?

The July/August issue of Atlantic Monthly featured a cover story by Nicholas Carr: "Is Google Making Us Stupid: What The Internet is doing to Our Brains." Carr is author of the recently published The Big Switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google and he blogs at Rough Type.

In case you missed it, here is a bit of the article:
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

EDGE 250 has a Reality Club discussion about the article, featuring W. Daniel Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Larry Sanger, George Dyson, Jaron Lanier, Douglas Rushkoff. Here are some excerpts from the various responses (these are only snippets, the whole response is available at Edge):

Nicholas Carr is correct in noticing that something is "Making us Stupid", but it is not Google. Think of Google as a life preserver, thrown to us in a rising flood. True, we use it to stay on the surface, but it is not for the sake of laziness. It is for survival.

The flood that is drowning us is, of course, the flood of information, a metaphor so trite that we have ceased to question it. If the metaphor was new we might ask, where exactly is this flood coming from? Is it a consequence of advances in communication technology? The power of media companies? Is it generated by our recently developed weakness for information snacks? All of these trends are real, but I believe they are not the cause. They are the symptoms of our predicament.

LARRY SANGER [7.11.08]

Carr's essay is interesting, but his aim is off. On the one hand, he is probably right that many of us have a tendency to sample too much of everything from the Internet's information buffet—leading to epistemic indigestion. We ought to be reading more books—including more classics—or so I think. On the other hand, he is wrong to present the problem as a collective, techno-social one, beyond our individual control, a problem to be blamed on programmers, and treated mainly by social psychologists or technocrats rather than by the philosophers and humanists. Let me elaborate.

Carr identifies an important problem. He begins with the valid observation that many of us seem to be reading smaller and smaller snippets of text. Is it any wonder that Twitter is so popular?

JARON LANIER [7.14.08]

The thing that is making us stupid is pretending that technological change is an autonomous process that will proceed in its chosen direction independently of us.


Back in 1995 I argued that we're looking at net-literate kids all wrong—that we were like fish bemoaning the fact that their children had evolved legs, walked on land, and in the process lost the ability to breathe underwater.

I'm not quite as optimistic as I was then, and largely because we have remained fairly ignorant of the biases of media as we move from one system to the other. It's less a matter of "is this a good thing or a bad thing"—or, in Carr's terminology, "smart or dumb" thing—than it is an issue of how conscious we are of each medium's strengths, and how consciously we move from one to another.

Personally, I don't think the internet is making me stupid. In fact, I would argue that the incredibly rapid access to information that the internet allows has made me incredibly more knowledgeable about a huge range of topics.

I use the technology -- it doesn't use me.

To me, one the prerequisites for transformation is exposure to knowledge not otherwise available, and the willingness to integrate that knowledge -- being an open system. Sure I could read and get the information that way (and I do -- my book collection is mind-boggling), but the internet provides multiple points of view on any give topic at my fingertips whenever I want it.

Technology is our friend, as long we maintain a proper relationship to it -- and maintain our critical distance so that we remain open to diverse views.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after.