The Wall Street Journal has published a precis of a new book by Nicholas Carr titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.  The book is an expansion of a piece Carr wrote in the Atlantic a couple years ago with the provocative title “Is Google Making us Stupid?” Years ago Marshall Mcluhan told us that the medium is the message. It seems that now we are learning that at least some media shape not only the message but the neural circuits of our brains as well. This does not bode well for high-level thought. One researcher Carr quotes concludes that

“every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by “new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” We’re becoming, in a word, shallower.

Unfortunately, the ill-effects are not temporary.

It would be one thing if the ill effects went away as soon as we turned off our computers and cellphones. But they don’t. The cellular structure of the human brain, scientists have discovered, adapts readily to the tools we use, including those for finding, storing and sharing information. By changing our habits of mind, each new technology strengthens certain neural pathways and weakens others. The cellular alterations continue to shape the way we think even when we’re not using the technology.

To read serious books, to sustain attention in a world where distractions present themselves on every hand, is no easy task. But perhaps today more than any other time, these skills must be seriously and intentionally cultivated. Carr concludes his piece with these words:

To read a book is to practice an unnatural process of thought. It requires us to place ourselves at what T. S. Eliot, in his poem “Four Quartets,” called “the still point of the turning world.” We have to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter our instinctive distractedness, thereby gaining greater control over our attention and our mind.

It is this control, this mental discipline, that we are at risk of losing as we spend ever more time scanning and skimming online. If the slow progression of words across printed pages damped our craving to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Internet indulges it. It returns us to our native state of distractedness, while presenting us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with.

The obvious problem is that you are reading this on-line and I am writing this (and read it) on-line as well. Is there a way to enjoy the benefits of the internet while still practicing the art of paying attention? Tocqueville wrote that “the habit of inattention must be considered the greatest vice of the democratic mind.” If Carr’s research is correct, it may be that the internet plays into our greatest vice. The road to virtuous thought–that is excellent thought–appears tenuous indeed.

h/t Les Sillars

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  1. NY times just published a similar piece:

    money quote:

    Mr. Nass at Stanford thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room.

    “The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care.”

    That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. “We are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”

  2. one more link. readability makes it much easier to take in the internet without being distracted:

    it doesn’t work for every website, but it certainly helps cut back on the distraction.

    i’ve found that when i spend the majority of time on the internet, i cannot read a book later that day. to focus on reading, i must often turn off my computer completely, or else it becomes a temptation. i got rid of email notification chines a LONG time ago and stopped using my google reader, because it nourished that part of me that was always on the hunt for some (usually useless) piece of information.

    i’m seriously considering…well, not getting rid of the internet…but doing something drastic. i’ll let you know when i figure it out.

  3. It’s true that the internet (via social networking) is definitely changing our social behavior. And that’s enough to warrant some serious research/effort on changing this negative aspect of internet technology on our culture.

    However, I don’t quite buy that the availability of nearly limitless information is reducing our knowledge and understanding of the world (what is here called “virtuous thought”)

    Speaking from my own well educated and “virtous thinking” point of view (M.S. Math, BA Math, BA philosophy) I’ve learned from drifting across the internet and from reading books. I’ve learned from letting my mind wander in abastract and particular thought and from practical experience. Last, peer to peer transfer of knowledge has been extremely important too.

    However, it takes mental and physical discipline (physical in that you have to remove yourself from life’s daily distraction)! It always has for all people across time. Think that Native Americans would rather sit and meditate than go hunting for buffalo or tell stories around the campfire?

  4. There is another angle on this that I am sympathetic to:

    Clay Shirky on “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?”

    Or less eloquently from Derek Powazek, “Why Everything Sucks, Why That’s Awesome, and How It’s Changing Us”

    Essentially the Internet is exposing the pre-Mastery process. It’s exposing us to all the people who are not yet masters and their not yet masterpieces. The idea that this is a continuous state of being for the individual people is very different from this being a continuous state of being for the community.

    In other words, the Internet is a big sandbox of experimentation where greatness can and does bloom but where the the vast majority of the material present is in a process towards mastery (which is decidedly not masterful).

    I’ve been writing poetry for a year now online. Some of the early ones were fine, but many were terrible. The discipline of writing every day has had its reward. Should I have waited until I was awe-inspiring to publish my work online? I don’t know (I’m certainly not awe-inspiring yet).

    But I think there’s a wrong-headed view about what the Internet is. It isn’t a stage, it’s a workshop. A master wood-worker’s workshop might look a mess and even be filled with dozens of failed pieces of his former work. Still in that place he may do something brilliant and enduring.

    Should we put the cable-pullers back behind the curtain so as to not distract from the play? Should the stage manager’s voice not be crying out to the crew during the performance that the audience can hear? Probably not. But that too will work out in time.

    But you don’t learn nearly as much from looking at the masterpiece as you do from exploring the master’s shop.

  5. Didn’t we cover this already? Oh well, it can stand for repeat treatments. In fact, in light of one of the data points which Carr brings up in his book–namely that, on the basis of eye-motion studies and memory and cognition tests, it seems likely that online readers usually grasp no more than about 18% of the content actually included in the text of any post or comment–it seems reasonably likely that Carr’s findings will have to be trumpeted many times before most readers actually get their point.

    As for how to combat the cognition-affecting consequences of internet reading, after reading Carr’s book I made a promise that I would do more book-reading than online-reading this summer. Thus far, I’m finding it a harder commitment to keep to than I thought.

  6. More accurate to say, perhaps, “we make the internet stoopid.” Of all social phenomena, “the internet” (I assume we are not talking about the technology, but rather the social and information network) is driven by its participants, and not some central planners. The online world is shaped by us more than we by it. If it looks stupid, well, that stupidity was there long before the internet made it visible.

    Now, with the the Twitter phenomenon in full flood, we can inspect the random evanescent thoughts of a large part of the population. It’s not a pretty sight, but should we have expected otherwise?

    Balance the obvious limitations of most internet conversation with the loads of very good, stimulating and mind-expanding thought that can be found there, and that one would have been challenged to find so easily thirty years ago. As the medium matures, and we develop the skills to use it well (and the discipline to turn it off now and then) we will be better off.

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