Sunday, June 6, 2010

Is the Internet re-wiring our brains?

A new book by Nicholas Carr, "The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read And Remember", suggests it is. The Daily Mail reports:

The internet represents an intellectual revolution of a kind not seen since the invention of the printing press or perhaps even of writing itself. It promises the ultimate democratisation of information.

And for the most part, this has been seen as a good thing. But not by everyone. A couple of years ago American technologist Nicholas Carr wrote a provocative article in The Atlantic magazine entitled: 'Is Google Making us Stupid?'

Carr's thesis, which has now been expanded into an equally provocative book, is that there is a dark side to the net. Not the pornography and chatroom dangers - these are well documented - but something far more sinister and little-appreciated: the internet, he says, is teaching us to stop thinking.

'Over the past few years,' he writes, '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 is changing. I am not thinking the way I used to think.'

What Carr is talking about is his fidgety inability to concentrate on anything for more than a few moments at a time. He asked his friends and found they agreed. Some have stopped reading books altogether.

One, a doctor, said: 'I have now almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print.'

Another spoke of his 'staccato' thinking. 'I can't read War And Peace any more. I have lost the ability to do that.'

Carr's hunch - shared by many of his friends - is that something nasty is happening to their minds, and his suspicion is that the internet is to blame. Conscious that the web has been unthinkingly blamed for more or less every evil in society, Carr realised that he would need some evidence to back up his hunch.

So he talked to linguists and neuroscientists, psychiatrists and psychologists and has come up with the disturbing conclusion that, yes, the internet (and all its electronic offshoots - Twitter, text messaging and so forth) are rewiring our minds.

Maryanne Wolf, a psychologist at Tufts University and perhaps the world's leading expert on how we read, says: 'We are not only what we read. We are HOW we read.' When we read online, she says, we become 'mere decoders of information'.

There is no doubt that the internet, once the preserve of hobbyists and academics, has wrought a profound change in society.

Since its advent in the early Seventies (yes, it really is that old) the internet has grown into an electronic behemoth, composed of tens of millions of interconnected processors and databanks, an uncontrolled planet-sized machine of almost immeasurable power that is rapidly subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies, even the most modern.

Ten years ago, we bought books and CDs on the net; now the net itself is the repository for the written word and music, which can be downloaded to be perused at leisure on our laptops, e-readers and iPads.

The internet is even subsuming computers themselves. More and more software - including the stuff we use to run our lives, email and so forth - 'lives' not in the memory chips of a single physical machine, but is distributed through the net, in what has become known as the 'Cloud'.

The internet has become the world's meeting house, a modern planetary forum, where millions distribute gigabytes of personal data, photos, thoughts, Twitter messages, blogs and emails to chat, gossip, flirt and show off.

Thanks to the net, anyone can become a publisher, writer, picture agency and recording studio all rolled into one. The net has become our map and our clock, our printing press and our calculator, our telephone, HiFi, radio and TV.

And this is hugely addictive; in 2005, when the net was half the size it is today, we spent about six hours a week online in some form or other. Now that has doubled to 12 - and in some countries it is much more. And the amount of information we are being exposed to online is so much greater than before.

Put simply, whole libraries' worth of information is passing through our heads without our even noticing.

As we spend more time on the net, we spend less time on other things, especially reading books, magazines and newspapers. Young adults now spend about a quarter less time reading than they did a decade ago, the slack being taken up almost entirely by online activities.

The net is different to all previous communication revolutions in that it is not just a replacement for older media, it actively subverts and subsumes them. A 'page' on a website looks at first glance much like a page in a book. But it is very different.

The act of reading a book draws not just on our sense of sight, but also on our sense of touch. Things like the quality of the paper, the size of type and even the font matter much more than we think.

The nub of Carr's argument is that the net is subverting the very process of intellectual inquiry. Take hyperlinks - the bridges between the myriad pages of the web which move you on with just one click. They do not just point us to related or supplemental information, they actively propel us towards them.

With books and libraries, you had to make the intellectual leap to the next avenue of research yourself. Not any more. The machine does it.

When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource an important part of our intellect and even identity.

Carr says the internet acts like a drug. Its gratifications are instant, its accessibility universal (and cheap).

And like a chemical narcotic, the net's 'cacophony of stimuli' short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thoughts, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively (or sympathetically, he argues).

All this may be true, but it is not the same as saying the net is rewiring our brains. How do we know that it is not more than a simple distraction, like music or film, a distraction from which we can quickly recover when the source is turned off?

The answer lies in the fact that the adult human brain is NOT immutable. Many believe that, post-puberty, the fundamental wiring and structure of its 100 billion neurons is essentially crystallised into a form that will never change, except with the degrading effects of age.

This is false, and it is the plasticity of not only the teenage but the adult brain that forms strong, albeit circumstantial, evidence that Carr's thesis might be correct.

James Olds, a neuroscientist at George Mason University, says: ' The brain has the ability to reprogramme itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.'

There's more at the link. Very highly recommended reading.

I've re-read the whole article a couple of times, and it grows more interesting every time. I think Mr. Carr is on to something here. His book isn't yet out, but Amazon UK already lists it, and I'll be looking for it in the USA as soon as it's available. (No, I don't get paid to recommend or promote it: it's just caught my imagination.)


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I understand what he is saying, but I disagree that this is happening to all of us. I've always been a broad thinker, and the internet allows me to explore my ideas and questions quickly and in as much depth as needed. There was a time when, to get a question answered, I had to go to the library, then look through the card catalog for the general topic, assuming it was in a book at all (it could just as easily be in a periodical or newspaper microfiche), then hope that the books I was looking for were in. I might even have to request an interlibrary loan to get the material.

One might argue that it required a great deal more discipline and patience then, but only because the speed at which information could be collected was so slow. What used to take me weeks to research can now be collected in a few hours at most. It allows me to research a great many more ideas and disparate subjects. It also allows me to follow hunches before they calcify into inflexible notions.

Sure, my internet time has cut into the time to read books, but I now have a reading list of such breadth of subject matter, far broader than I ever would have before the hyperlink. It also lets me specialize as deeply as I want.