The Joy of Quiet

Quote of the day (from an op-ed by Pico Iyver in the New York Times a while back, but still very much relevant):

“In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight. […] We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.” 

Digital Natives

PBS Newshour aired a fascinating segment yesterday by Miles O’Brien about the effects of multitasking and addiction to digital technology on adolescents’ brains. The gist: multi-tasking is possible and the constant, simultaneous use of technologies will rewire our brains over time. But it is very inefficient and a constant give and take.

I wrote a while ago about “Our Brains Online.” Now, here’s another take on the story: How kids and “technology addicts” may alter their brains  — for better or for worse. “The prime time for pruning is adolescence,” says O’Brien.“Connections that are used are strengthened. Those that aren’t are disconnected.”

“This is the time when human beings learn to live independently in their environment — 10,000 years ago, teens would have been learning how to stay warm, what berries to eat, or how to hunt. Today, they are learning how to drink from a technological fire hose. And, in fact, in their adult jobs, they may be doing a lot of multitasking. But the other side of that coin is, will they become less good at focusing on one task, of being able to do one thing really well?”

In a recent article in Nieman ReportsDistracted: The New News World and the Fate of Attention,” Maggie Jackson went even further:

“In our rapid-fire, split-focus era, are we able to process, filter and reflect well on the tsunamis of information barraging us daily? Are we hearing, but not listening? If this continues to be the way we work, learn and report, could we be collectively nurturing new forms of ignorance, born not from a dearth of information as in the past, but from an inability or an unwillingness to do the difficult work of forging knowledge from the data flooding our world?”

Adults, who have been using new technologies from the start, show the same brain-changes. “I can feel it, too” admits Nicholas Karr in his December 2010 article in The Atlantic Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains

“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.”

And it all started so promising. In 1982, The Atlantic published a very entertaining piece “Living with a computer” by James Fallows, who describes the positive and time-saving experience of working, and slowly coming to love his first computer (with a 48K memory). At the end of his story, Fallows expressed his hope “for a world in which my sons can grow up to have a better computer than their father had.”

They definitely have. But has that served them well?

Almost 30 years later, Karr is less enthusiastic than Fallows was back then: “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

Much ado about nothing? Maybe. It is up to parents and teachers to introduce kids to things that they wouldn’t look for themselves or are not aware of that they need. Choices are good once you make sure that you don’t get sucked into more of the same of what you already know.

O’Brien muses at the end of his piece for PBS: “I suppose cavemen parents worried about their kids playing with that newfangled fire.”

Fire? What fire? Many of us have lost the ability to really see the glow of the flames, hear them crackle, smell the burning sap of the logs and feel the heat on our faces even if the fire is right in front of us. We watch it on Vimeo, tweet about it, Digg it, Stumble Upon it, blog and text about it and find it on Google Maps or on our iPhone app. And then we immediately forget that it ever happened.

Still, my brain and I don’t want to go back to the time where we couldn’t choose what to read, watch, learn and listen to freely, wherever and whenever.

Hmm. What was I just talking about?

Your Brain Online

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.

Rudolf ArnheimI 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.)

Are Apple Products “Rotting Our Brains”?

“President Obama has said that devices like Apple’s iPad are rotting our brains. He’s right,” argues Daniel Lyons in Newsweek (…which, by the way, and maybe not coincidentally, was just put up for sale. Maybe out brains really can’t process authoritative weeklies any longer?).

The president believes, “information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of  emancipation.” Lyons continues:

Oh, but we’re very, very busy zombies. We’re reading e-mail. We’re tweeting and retweeting. We’re downloading apps, and uploading photos. We’re updating our Facebook status and reading our news feeds and telling the whole world what we like and don’t like, because for some reason we imagine that the whole world actually cares. You know what we’re not doing? We’re not thinking. We’re processing. There’s a difference. […] No way. What’s happening is this: we are being so overwhelmed by the noise and junk zooming past us that we’re becoming immune to it. We’ve become a nation of Internet-powered imbeciles, with an ever-lower threshold for inanity. Beck and Palin are the inevitable outcome of that devolution. They are what we deserve. They are, in fact, what we’ve created.”

What do you think? See this blog post for my take on what technology does — or doesn’t do— to our brains.