What the Internet is Doing to our Brains

If you wish to read scholarly answers to this question you will find them at edge.org.

To save you time, here are three excerpts:

The Canadian Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, the author of How the Mind Works, named by Time magazine in 2004 as one of the hundred most influential men in the world, writes:

“The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.”

Nicholas Carr, the American author of the 2008 Wall Street Journal bestseller The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google, is an Internet-skeptic:

“Given that the average American now spends 8.5 hours a day peering at screens, it seems likely that we’re narrowing the scope of our intellectual experiences. We’re training ourselves, through repetition, to be facile skimmers and message-processors – important skills, no doubt – but, perpetually distracted, we’re not learning the quieter, more attentive modes of thought: contemplation, reflection, introspection, deep reading.”

Evgeny Morozov, a contributing editor to Foreign Policy, has an answer to both:

“Pinker, I fear, falls into the same conceptual trap as Carr, i.e., he sets to measure the Internet against the printing press, the comic book, and television. However, by viewing the Internet as just another medium, both Carr and Pinker end up significantly downplaying its importance.

“The Internet is not just another medium. Rather, it’s a full-blown brand-new dimension to human affairs – and it is poised to profoundly affect all other dimensions. The proper analogy, thus, is not to the newspaper or the telegraph, but to religion and nationalism. However, just like one could not assess the overall impact of religion by looking at the rates of dissemination of religious literature, one cannot assess the impact of the Internet by looking at such a narrow slice of its impact as the consumption of information by its users. Just as with religion or nationalism, there is absolutely no guarantee that the vector of social change unleashed by the Internet would be either positive or negative; most certainly, it will be both – so the sooner we find a way to diagnose and minimize its negative effects, the better.”

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16 responses to “What the Internet is Doing to our Brains

  1. David Schatzky

    For me, the biggest impact of the Internet has been the democratization of knowledge. Everything is there, accessible to everyone. There are no experts any more. Just ask a physician. He’ll tell you his patients are often more aware of the latest developments in medicine than he is. But, the Internet is no substitute for experience or intelligence. It’s a great tool (which as McLuhan prophetically pointed out, subsumes all previous media) but it must be used with skill, wisdom or good judgement. There’s no way to democratize those qualities, yet!

    • What do you mean – there are no experts any more?

      Thanks to the Internet we are all experts.

      • David Schatzky

        I can smell a whiff of Koch irony in your response.

        Because of the Internet we may THINK we know as much as leading professionals. But, what we have is that little learning which is a dangerous thing. Unless we are rigorous in how we use the internet and take into account how factoids and shallow reading can mislead us, we are likely to misunderstand and make mistakes.

        But perhaps the same could be said of books. It’s the quality of the reader, not the book, which determines how knowledge is applied.

        So, on balance, it’s wonderful that everyone can dip into the vast endless Internet storehouse of knowledge, both ancient and current, but I wouldn’t want to cross a bridge built by someone who read how to construct it by reading an article on the net, or be psychoanalyzed by someone who just looked up an article about Freud and said, I can do what he did!

        Quick illustration: I was asked a few months ago to comment on TV about something in the news. I didn’t know much about it, but when the item appeared on TV my son watched the interview and said “Dad, you seemed very authoritative talking about something you know nothing about. Did you search the internet before the interview?” Of course, I had, and he was right!

  2. The Internet also cranks up the requirement for educators to help students develop critical thinking and evaluation skills. All that “information” to lead us astray.

    • Yes, no doubt you are right. This is a bit surprising because surely the first impulse of educators some years ago was to discourage students from using the Internet, on the grounds that it was a mechanical shortcut to the traditional acquisition of knowledge.

  3. Sufficient time has passed for reliable research tools to be created online, to which institutions subscribe on behalf of their students and that become acceptable sources for research and citations. Thankfully, we are not dependent only on Google.

    Not sure yet where this leaves brick and mortar libraries. Quiet places to work and access to the Internet if nothing else. And to librarians with expertise on resource access.

  4. Horace Krever

    Hasn’t change in information technology always affected the brain? The printing press must have had a direct effect on the oral tradition. Human memory is not what it was before Gutenberg. Homer’s feat is not possible today, although I must admit that the millions who, today, can recite the Koran from memory are impressive.

    • Homer had the advantage of being blind…..

      Yes – that was McLuhan’s subject. How prescient he was! And he deduced it all from James Joyce. Or at least so he said. Amazing.

  5. Don’t know if the brain gets changed, but I’m sure the mind does – individual and collective.

    Jaron Lanier – former microsoft maven turned web 2.0 critic – is worth a look.

    A book: You Are Not a Gadget.

    A quote: “Web 2.0 collectivism has killed the individual voice. It is increasingly disheartening to write about any topic in depth these days, because people will only read what the first link from a search engine directs them to, and that will typically be the collective expression of the Wikipedia….when someone does try to be expressive in a collective, Web 2.0 context, she must prioritize standing out from the crowd. To do anything else is to be invisible. Therefore, people become artificially caustic, flattering, or otherwise manipulative.”

    http://www.jaronlanier.com/gadgetwebresources.html

    • This is entirely new to me. I will examine Jaron Lamier – he certainly looks intriguing at first sight.

      I refuse to be depressed by your quote – it can’t be as bad as all that. But why did he said “SHE must prioritize” (what a word!)? Just because he did not want to say “he or she”?

      P S. I am not holding you personally responsible for the poverty of the English language.

  6. Horace Krever

    I credit H.A. Innis and I believe McLuhan did too. (I was a student of Innis in 1950-51.)

  7. I’m relieved.

    I’m not depressed by the quote either. ‘Sketches’ itself counter-indicates death of the individual voice. It’s recognizable, it keeps rising like a story beanstalk with side sprouts of other individuality – and it’s all web 2.0. I think Lanier himself (or someone he knows) said the old internet was lectures, while web 2.0 is conversation.

    Another was the internet shapes minds: common metaphors we draw from its technology and phenomena will shape how we understand ourselves and the world.

    Our ecological ineptitude comes partly from using machine metaphors to describe our actions and the stages we play on (big wheels, leverage, getting hammered). I expect we’d do better to use metaphors from biology (children, parasites, cloning, evolution, habitat & niche, healing, predation, DNA).

    So what are the metaphors we’ll use from the experiences of living with digital information?

  8. David Schatzky

    Metaphor?

    A brain out of touch with the body.

  9. Kathy (Rosenmeyer) Fabunan

    I’d be curious if experience and breadth of knowledge was more common for the previous generation, or if it was the contemplation and deep reading that Carr describes? Morozov’s perspective is intriguing and a bit scary.
    As to wisdom and good judgment, I was recently filling in as my Tribe’s general manager, I found that some of our top managers had a similar lack of judgment as the TANF (welfare) clients I used to counsel. I am rethinking my opinion that poor judgment is one of the major barriers to a reasonably successful life.

    • Agreed, as would no doubt Obama who just accused McCrystal of having exercised “poor judgment”.

      Maybe in the general’s case it’s the result of eating only one meal a day.