Tuesday, August 09, 2011

what the internet is doing to our brains

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

In this short but informative, thought-provoking book, Nicholas Carr presents an argument I've long felt to be true on a humanist level, but supports it with considerable scientific research. In fact, he speaks as a longtime computer enthusiast, one who's come to question what he once wholeheartedly embraced ... and even now, he takes care to distinguish between the beneficial & detrimental aspects of the Internet.

The argument in question?

- Greater access to knowledge is not the same as greater knowledge.

- An ever-increasing plethora of facts & data is not the same as wisdom.

- Breadth of knowledge is not the same as depth of knowledge.

- Multitasking is not the same as complexity.

The studies that Carr presents are troubling, to say the least. From what has been gleaned to date, it's clear that the brain retains a certain amount of plasticity throughout life -- that is, it can be reshaped, and the way that we think can be reshaped, for good or for ill. Thus, if the brain is trained to respond to & take pleasure in the faster pace of the digital world, it is reshaped to favor that approach to experiencing the world as a whole. More, it comes to crave that experience, as the body increasingly craves more of anything it's trained to respond to pleasurably & positively. The more you use a drug, the more you need to sustain even the basic rush.

And where does that leave the mind shaped by deep reading? The mind that immerses itself in the universe of a book, rather than simply looking for a few key phrases & paragraphs? The mind that develops through slow, quiet contemplation, mulling over ideas in their entirety, and growing as a result? The mature mind that ponders possibilities & consequences, rather than simply going with the bright, dazzling, digital flow?

Nowhere, it seems.

Carr makes it clear that the digital world, like any other technology that undeniably makes parts of life so much easier, is here to stay. All the more reason, then, to approach it warily, suspiciously, and limit its use whenever possible, since it is so ubiquitous. "Yes, but," many will say, "everything is moving so fast that we've got to adapt to it, keep up with it!" Not unlike the Red Queen commenting that it takes all of one's energy & speed to simply remain in one place while running. But what sort of life is that? How much depth does it really have?

Because some aspects of life -- often the most meaningful & rewarding aspects -- require time & depth. Yet the digital world constantly makes us break it into discrete, interchangeable bits that hurtle us forward so rapidly & inexorably that we simply don't have time to stop & think. And before we know it, we're unwilling & even unable to think. Not in any way that allows true self-awareness in any real context.

Emerson once said (as aptly quoted by Carr), "Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind." The danger is that we'll not only willingly, even eagerly, wear those saddles, but that we'll come to desire them & buckle them on ever more tightly, until we feel naked without them. And we'll gladly pay anything to keep them there, even as we lose the capacity to wonder why we ever put them on in the first place.


I agree with the premise regarding what the internet is doing with our brains, but the author is not addressing the right question. The important questions are why are people falling for hype that the computer age is benevolent and why do people spend so much time with the internet. To discuss what neuropsychological changes in the brain occur by changing our symbol system the media ratios in our environment is easy.

What's hard is figuring out why people will do something that isn't good for them. I could describe the chemical and biological effects of various ways to commit homicide, but that isn't going to answer why anyone decides to do so, or I could describe the delivery systems of various weapons, but that won't explain why countries go to war.

Technological determinism is really just a small part of the equation, and note that the subtitle of the book is 'What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.' A better inquiry would be 'Why are we actively doing bad things to our brains by using the internet,' unless, of course, you believe there is no human volition that enters the dynamics of culture and communication.

Unfortunately, the volition that appears to exist is that of the people that exploit the medium for profit by creating such things as Facebook, twittering, and other overrated communication modalities. Sure, twittering is good if you're reporting on a revolution against an oppressive censor-ridden country, and facebook might be nice for scattered families, but most 'messaging' on these platforms is simply 'phatic communication.'

Why people spend their time with ways of interacting and thinking that are comfortable and lack any challenge is what should be looked into. And such ventures are profitable mainly due to trivial usage. The strength of the book is that the author tackles the subject. And being a fairly new argument, hopefully better books will come along in the future. I'd recommend any of S. Turkle or N. Postman's books for good, succinct evaluations of the important questions this book doesn't address.

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