Losing our minds to the web


From PROSPECT MAGAZINE

Author Carr believes that we are trapped, because the internet is programmed to “scatter our attention” in such a way that aggravates the pernicious influences of some types of information-processing. He concedes it is “possible to think deeply while surfing the net,” only to add this is “not the type of thinking the technology rewards.” The net “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social and intellectual nourishment.” Carr concludes that “with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the net may be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.” This leads to an even bleaker vision: “We are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.” -Ron Epstein

An influential new American book claims that the internet is damaging teenagers’ brains and our ability to think. But the web’s real dangers lurk elsewhere

[...] Enter Nicholas Carr, a technology writer and Silicon Valley’s favourite contrarian, whose book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton) has just come out in the US (and will be published in Britain by Atlantic in September). It is an expanded version of an essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” printed in the Atlantic magazine in 2008, which struck a chord with several groups. Those worrying about Google’s growing hold on our culture felt Carr was justified in going after it (though there was little about the search giant in the article). Those concerned with the accelerating rhythm of modern life, the dispersion of attention, and information overload—all arguably made worse by the internet—found a new ally. Those concerned with the trivialisation of intellectual life by blogs, tweets, and YouTube videos of cats also warmed to Carr’s message. Online magazine Slate has already compared The Shallows to Silent Spring, the 1962 book by Rachel Carson that helped launch the environmental movement.

Whatever one makes of Carr’s broader claims about the internet, many readers will be impressed by his summation of recent discoveries in neuroscience.

He builds on the work of Nobel-winner Eric Kandel and others to reveal that human brains adapt to new experiences—a feature known as “neuroplasticity.” This is helpful from an evolutionary perspective, but it also means some brain functions atrophy if we don’t use them. Here Carr mentions an oft-cited study that found changes in the brain structures of London cab drivers as they began relying on GPS rather than their memories to navigate. He believes that neuroplasticity provides the “missing link” to understanding how the media has “exerted their influence over the development of civilisation and helped to guide, at a biological level, the history of human consciousness.”

This claim is backed up with research on how our brains process information. Some of these findings are disturbing, if predictable: multi-tasking makes us less productive; those reading online skim read; using multimedia to present data may make it harder to grasp, and so on. In particular Carr cites work by Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, who found that the use of modern media “stimulates the brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening older ones.” His experiments showed that just five hours of internet use saw activity in parts of the brain’s previously dormant prefrontal cortex—evidence, for Carr, that the internet “rewires” brains.

Carr believes that we are trapped, because the internet is programmed to “scatter our attention” in such a way that aggravates the pernicious influences of some types of information-processing. He concedes it is “possible to think deeply while surfing the net,” only to add this is “not the type of thinking the technology rewards.” The net “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social and intellectual nourishment.” Carr concludes that “with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the net may be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.” This leads to an even bleaker vision: “We are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.”

Carr assumes that the internet, like any other tool, will affect its users in a certain way. Such technological determinism has fallen out of fashion in academia. But Carr is eager to rehash points made by earlier thinkers, above all, the US historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford. For instance, Carr argues that both maps and clocks “placed a new stress on measurement and abstraction, on perceiving and defining forms and processes beyond those apparent to the senses,” while “the clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man.”…

Full article here.
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