Under my byline

It’s the Net, stupid

Posted in Books, Health, Living by Rrishi on 24 July 2010

OVERLEAF 76

Reading article after article online at breakneck speed to complete this column, I was almost set to laughing by the irony: here I was, trying to summarise what people are saying about the effect of Internet and the asteroid-field of small doses of information with which we are surrounded, not to say bombarded, and I was scarcely getting the time to assimilate what I was seeing. Amusement turned to worry as opinion, in the articles I was (let’s be truthful) skim-reading, turned to fact — courtesy an essay by Nicholas Carr in the June issue of Wired.com magazine.

Carr reports that a recent psychiatry experiment at a California university suggests that experienced Web surfers show markedly different patterns of brain activity than people who spend very little time online. “Brain activity of the experienced surfers was far more extensive than that of the newbies,” while surfing, Carr writes, “particularly in areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving and decisionmaking.” Well, good, one might think, except that it turns out the net result (sorry about the pun) of even a few hours’ exposure to the Internet was an actual reshaping of the brain’s neural pathways.

Of course, Carr, who writes often on technology and culture, goes on to note that people like information — indeed, this may be an evolutionary advantage. For the hunting human, real-time information is useful; and for the human social animal, an absence of information leaves it isolated.

Yet Carr concludes that trading focus for quantities of information is not wise: “We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.” Rather than skimming being a means to an end, it is becoming the end in itself. He closes his article with a historical analogy: “What we’re experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: We are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.”

I focus on Carr, rather than the many others who have weighed in on this debate since the age of personal computing began in the 1980s, because Carr has written so extensively about it. The last time this same debate was kickstarted, it was again by Carr, via an essay in the Atlantic of July/August 2008 titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”. This year he has a whole book out on the subject. It’s called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W W Norton), and in it Carr rehearses his argument on a greater scale. He brings in history, cultural criticism and even neuroscience.

Leading the resistance, however, is professor of English and linguistics Dennis Baron, whose A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (OUP) was published late last year. To Baron, the ideas of Carr are wrong and uninformed. At every moment of technological advance in communication, Baron and his fellows say, there is resistance from the tradition-minded. He starts with the development of writing. Students with their heads full of information achieved without a teacher — that is, by reading a written text instead — would be full not of wisdom but the conceit of wisdom, worried Socrates. The Athenian was partly right, yet very wrong. Much the same applies to the shift from handwriting to printing, from page to screen, and so forth.

Now the great thing about this debate is that it underlies so much else, including our angst about “dumbing down”, fears of globalisation and for the future of literature, our responsibility to our children, concern over how social networking changes relationships… Carr, Baron and others are discussing the very foundation of our world: how we deal with information.

That question comes automatically bundled with its philosophical corollary: how is information working on us? Now, however — as revealed by experiments like the ones Carr describes — a paralysingly scary new dimension has opened up: it’s not just individual character and habit which shape how humans think. Information is actually changing our biological structure. Who knows where this will lead?

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