Long post. But maybe by reading this, you can refute a thesis that the Internet has altered our brains. Maybe. Keep reading, even though there are no bullet points.
A June 11 op-ed by Steven Pinker, “Mind Over Mass Media,” in the New York Times stated the following:
“[…] Knowledge is increasing exponentially […] Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.”
Then, Nicholas Carr’s published a blog post with his sharp rebuttal of Pinker’s thesis:
“The fact that people who fiddle with cell phones drive poorly shouldn’t make us less concerned about the cognitive effects of media distractions; it should make us more concerned. […] I have little doubt that Steven Pinker will one day write a cogent, thoughtful, and balanced critique of Internet skepticism. I look forward to reading it.”
Carr, by the way, is the author of The Shallows, which was reviewed in the NYTimes Magazine on June 6 under the headline “Our Cluttered Minds”.
The review ended with these words:
“While Carr tries to ground his argument in the details of modern neuroscience, his most powerful points have nothing do with our plastic cortex. Instead, The Shallows is most successful when Carr sticks to cultural criticism, as he documents the losses that accompany the arrival of new technologies. Or maybe even these worries are mistaken; it can be hard to predict the future through the haze of nostalgia. In 1916, T. S. Eliot wrote to a friend about his recent experiments with composing poetry on the typewriter. The machine “makes for lucidity,” he said, “but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.” A few years later, Eliot presented Ezra Pound with a first draft of “The Waste Land.” Some of it had been composed on the typewriter.”
The Times also published an interview with Carr, and Wired Magazine printed in its June issue an excerpt from Carr’s book, introducing the article with these words: “The riot of information from the Internet shatters our focus and rewires our brain.” Carr writes in his book:
“When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain. […] The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. […] The ability to scan and browse is as important as the ability to read deeply and think attentively. The problem is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself — our preferred method of both learning and analysis.”
I mostly agree with Carr. Strictly speaking from personal experience of course, being online and available all the time frequently means many wasted hours — and I exclude working on this blog. The more I read, the less I take in. To quote T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
No scientific data to back me up really, but I know best what the Internet has or has not done to my mind. Anyone who has put his/her keys in the freezer because the Blackberry chirped relentlessly must recognize this feeling.
I counter Pinker’s notion that we all are “getting smarter” because of the web — social and world-wide and any other kind — with this quote written in 1930 by Rudolf Arnheim, a German author, art- and film theorist and perceptual psychologist, who wrote about mass media in the early 1930s (pictured): “Human beings will come to confuse the world perceived by their senses and the world interpreted by thought. They will believe that seeing is understanding.”
I think he was on to something.
Already back in January, before the Carr/NYTimes face-off, an article in Newsweek had quoted studies that deflated the idea that the Internet was changing our brain (“Your Brain Online”). The article featured an introduction with an account of what we perceive the Internet to be doing to our brain: “Shortened attention span. Less interest in reflection and introspection. Inability to engage in in-depth thought. Fragmented, distracted thinking.” But it still somehow came to the conclusion that “the ways the Internet supposedly affects thought are as apocalyptic as they are speculative, since all the above are supported by anecdote, not empirical data.”
In a very, very, very long article in The Atlantic, Carr had asked “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The short answer should have been “no”. Because stressing that readers skim and not read and that they are too wired to absorb, dismisses the fact that The Atlantic and its readers are living proof that the opposite can be true as well. These people like to read. And they presumably go online as well. It seems on that platform, he was preaching to the wrong crowd.
The effect of the Internet can not be explained in black or white. Still, Carr’s words of caution have merit: “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”
Then again, Arnheim was already prescient enough to know this in 1930.
(You might be interested in checking out this website: EDGE by the Edge Foundation that has many takes by scientists and scholars on the topic and revisits the question annually.)