For years now, there’s been constant discussion of how the Web is changing how we live. Communication is faster and simpler, it’s easier than ever to find information, we’re overloaded with information, and so on and so forth.
But what’s only beginning to be studied and discussed is how the Internet and digital technology are changing us. I mean us not in the sense of democracy, or we the people, or how we do our jobs – I mean our actual physical and chemical makeups, the way our brains work, the way we live and function every second of every day.
In the last few months, there’s been an enormous amount written on this subject, all by people much smarter than I. So, instead of weighing in on the subject, which would be me parroting the smartest things I’ve read in the last three months, I want to share with you a must-read list. It’s got information from (hopefully) all sides of the debate, and I’ll throw in a choice quote or two from each one.
They’re all worth reading in full because for better or for worse, the way we think, act, and live is fundamentally changing – and quickly.
(The one that started a lot of this debate) Is Google Making us Stupid? – The Atlantic
As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. 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.
Does the Internet Make You Smarter? – The Wall Street Journal
We are living through a similar explosion of publishing capability today, where digital media link over a billion people into the same network. This linking together in turn lets us tap our cognitive surplus, the trillion hours a year of free time the educated population of the planet has to spend doing things they care about. In the 20th century, the bulk of that time was spent watching television, but our cognitive surplus is so enormous that diverting even a tiny fraction of time from consumption to participation can create enormous positive effects.
Does the Internet Make You Dumber? – The Wall Street Journal
In one experiment conducted at Cornell University, for example, half a class of students was allowed to use Internet-connected laptops during a lecture, while the other had to keep their computers shut. Those who browsed the Web performed much worse on a subsequent test of how well they retained the lecture’s content. While it’s hardly surprising that Web surfing would distract students, it should be a note of caution to schools that are wiring their classrooms in hopes of improving learning.
Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in moving information from working memory into long-term memory. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by varying the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer much of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of knowledge and wisdom.
On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream.
Television was a solitary activity that crowded out other forms of social connection. But the very nature of these new technologies fosters social connection—creating, contributing, sharing. When someone buys a TV, the number of consumers goes up by one, but the number of producers stays the same. When someone buys a computer or mobile phone, the number of consumers and producers both increase by one. This lets ordinary citizens, who’ve previously been locked out, pool their free time for activities they like and care about. So instead of that free time seeping away in front of the television set, the cognitive surplus is going to be poured into everything from goofy enterprises like lolcats, where people stick captions on cat photos, to serious political activities like Ushahidi.com, where people report human rights abuses.
Your Brain on Computers – The New York Times
While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.
My Colossal Task Burden – The Guardian
Our hopscotching brains make us more depressed (it’s harder to focus on the positive), less able to connect with people and form a conscience. And it’s an insane delusion. Multitasking makes us feel efficient, but it actually slows down our thinking. Our brains can’t handle more than one higher cognitive function at a time. We may think we’re multitasking, but in fact we’re switchtasking, toggling between one task and another. The phone, the email, the phone, back to the email. And each time you switch, there’s a few milliseconds of start-up cost. The neurons need time to rev up.
And the idea that multitasking is inherently impossible is also an attractive one. But are these things making us dumber, or are they simply challenging us to become smarter in new ways? I would argue they are doing both. To the extent that we want to use them to become more intelligent, they are doing so; but the very same tools can just as easily be used to become dumber and less informed, just as television can, or the telephone or any other technology, including books.
How Has the Internet Changed The Way You Think? – The World Question Center
So, as much as I kind of want to believe people who say they have big, deep thoughts when they disconnect from the web, I don’t trust them. It reminds me of a doctor declaring herself/himself Amish for the day, and then heading from New York to Boston by horse & carriage with a hemorrhaging patient. Granted, you could do it, and some patients might even survive, but it isn’t prudent or necessary. It seems instead a kind of public exercise in macho symbolism, like Iggy Pop carving something in his chest, a way of bloodily demonstrating that you’re different, or even a sign of outright crankishness. Look at me! I’m thinking! No Internet!
There’s a lot to say about this issue, and a lot still unknown. But, one way or the other, we’re becoming different because of the way we interact with the incredible force that is the Internet. One last quote, from Nicholas Carr, that I loved:
We know that the human brain is highly plastic; neurons and synapses change as circumstances change. When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including the use of a new medium, we end up with a different brain, says Michael Merzenich, a pioneer of the field of neuroplasticity. That means our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer.
What do you think? Is the Internet changing us for the better, or the worse, or at all? Who else is saying smart things about this?