September 29, 2010
IN AN often quoted piece, Is Google making us stupid?, published in The Atlantic two years ago, former Harvard Business Review editor Nicholas Carr made the provocative argument that the ease of online searching and browsing affected our ability to concentrate.
Carr wrote: ”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 any more.”
In his Rough Type blog, Carr said the internet had inverted Edgar’s line from King Lear: ”Ripeness is All”. ”The Bard did not anticipate the real-time web,” he wrote. ”On the New Net, ripeness is nothing. Nowness is all … Nothing is left to ripen. History gets lost in the chatter.”
True, debates about technology’s impact are not new. Socrates argued that putting thoughts on paper would substitute for memory; and in the 17th century, writers were bemoaning the confusion of having so many books on the market. But the internet’s ubiquitousness makes Carr’s argument more striking.
Carr expands the argument in his latest book, The Shallows (Atlantic, 2010). Carr, a freelance journalist, author and prolific blogger jacked into various RSS feeds, is no Luddite. With prisoners in New South Wales’s SuperMax prison now using Facebook to keep in touch with the outside world, including fellow gang members and using it to request contact with women, Carr is making us pause before we proclaim the internet as a force for progress and productivity. The internet, he suggests, may have us surfing our way to stupidity.
Carr argues that the internet is actually rewiring our brains, changing our approach to reading, ideas and concentrated work even when we are away from the computer. ”Whether I’m online or not, 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,” Carr writes. ”What we are experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilisation; we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.”
Carr takes us through mountains of academic and consulting research to support his point. One study that examined the reading habits of 6000 young people who grew up with the internet found that they did not read a page from left to right, or from top to bottom, but instead skipped around, scanning for bits of pertinent information.
In effect what we are doing, he says, is outsourcing memory function and thought to Google and email. That is even more so with Google Instant, a creepy feature that in effect reads your mind by searching results as you type. The problem is the brain’s plasticity. Carr quotes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich who says that the daily use of computers, smartphones, search engines and other such tools ”stimulates brain cell alternation and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening old ones”.
He also cites studies showing that when people search the net, they exhibit different patterns of brain activity than they do when they read a book. Printed book readers have activity in brain regions associated with language, memory and visual processing. Experienced net users display activity in regions associated with decision making and problem solving. That explains why deep reading and sustained concentration become difficult online and why many say they now have difficulty reading books.
Still, his criticisms need to be put in context. The internet has created a revolution in work, society and politics. Business cannot survive without it. Protesters in Iran last year used Twitter; and it is estimated that China has 200 million blogs, despite the censorship.
However, Carr makes us reflect on the unexpected impact the net may be having on society. He cites claims by the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke that web-driven multitasking makes us ”more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought”.
The greatest irony of all would be if the internet, which is supposed to create networked individualism, actually encouraged groupthink.
And yet, the beauty of the internet is that information is available to everyone.
Besides, Carr’s enormous bibliography and list of references suggest he may be one very skilled Googler.
Source: The Age
How our minds have changed
Computers are changing the way we think. READ ON
A social media blackout. READ ON
Why the revolution will not be tweeted. READ ON
Master the art of disconnecting – some of the time, at
least. READ ON