Does the internet make us stupid?

This Book Review is a little off topic, but at the same time maybe should be a cue to make us think about how we use technology, and perhaps a reminder to us all not to over used it!

The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr

‘I don’t own a computer, have no idea how to work one,’ Woody Allen told an interviewer recently. Most of us have come to find computers indispensable, but he manages to have a productive life without one. Are those of us with computers really better off?

There are two ways that computers might add to our wellbeing. First, they could do so indirectly, by increasing our ability to produce other goods and services. In this they have proved something of a disappointment. In the early 1970s, American businesses began to invest heavily in computer hardware and software, but for decades this enormous investment seemed to pay no dividends. As the economist Robert Solow put it in 1987, ‘You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.’ Perhaps too much time was wasted in training employees to use computers; perhaps the sorts of activity that computers make more efficient, like word processing, don’t really add all that much to productivity; perhaps information becomes less valuable when it’s more widely available. Whatever the case, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that some of the productivity gains promised by the computer-driven ‘new economy’ began to show up – in the United States, at any rate. So far, Europe appears to have missed out on them.

The other way computers could benefit us is more direct. They might make us smarter, or even happier. They promise to bring us such primary goods as pleasure, friendship, sex and knowledge. If some lotus-eating visionaries are to be believed, computers may even have a spiritual dimension: as they grow ever more powerful, they have the potential to become our ‘mind children’. At some point – the ‘singularity’ – in the not-so-distant future, we humans will merge with these silicon creatures, thereby transcending our biology and achieving immortality. It is all of this that Woody Allen is missing out on.

But there are also sceptics who maintain that computers are having the opposite effect on us: they are making us less happy, and perhaps even stupider. Among the first to raise this possibility was the American literary critic Sven Birkerts. In his book The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), Birkerts argued that the computer and other electronic media were destroying our capacity for ‘deep reading’. His writing students, thanks to their digital devices, had become mere skimmers and scanners and scrollers. They couldn’t lose themselves in a novel the way he could. This didn’t bode well, Birkerts thought, for the future of literary culture.

Suppose we found that computers are diminishing our capacity for certain pleasures, or making us worse off in other ways. Why couldn’t we simply spend less time in front of the screen and more time doing the things we used to do before computers came along – like burying our noses in novels? Well, it may be that computers are affecting us in a more insidious fashion than we realise. They may be reshaping our brains – and not for the better. That was the drift of ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’, a 2008 cover story by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic. Carr, a technology writer and a former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, has now elaborated his indictment of digital culture into a book, The Shallows.

Carr thinks that he was himself an unwitting victim of the computer’s mind-altering powers. Now in his early fifties, he describes his life as a ‘two-act play’, ‘Analogue Youth’ followed by ‘Digital Adulthood’. In 1986, five years out of college, he dismayed his wife by spending nearly all their savings on an early version of the Apple Mac. Soon afterwards, he says, he lost the ability to edit or revise on paper. Around 1990, he acquired a modem and an AOL subscription, which entitled him to spend five hours a week online sending email, visiting ‘chat rooms’ and reading old newspaper articles. It was around this time that the programmer Tim Berners-Lee wrote the code for the World Wide Web, which, in due course, Carr would be restlessly exploring with the aid of his new Netscape browser. ‘You know the rest of the story because it’s probably your story too,’ he writes.

Ever-faster chips. Ever quicker modems. DVDs and DVD burners. Gigabyte-sized hard drives. Yahoo and Amazon and eBay. MP3s. Streaming video. Broadband. Napster and Google. BlackBerrys and iPods. Wi-Fi networks. YouTube and Wikipedia. Blogging and microblogging. Smartphones, thumb drives, netbooks. Who could resist? Certainly not I.

It wasn’t until 2007, Carr says, that he had the epiphany that led to this book: ‘The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing.’

Lest we take him to be speaking metaphorically, Carr launches into a brief history of brain science, which culminates in a discussion of ‘neuroplasticity’: the idea that experience affects the structure of the brain. Scientific orthodoxy used to hold that the adult brain was fixed and immutable: experience could alter the strengths of the connections among its neurons, it was believed, but not its overall architecture. By the late 1960s, however, striking evidence of brain plasticity began to emerge. In one series of experiments, researchers cut nerves in the hands of monkeys, and then, using microelectrode probes, observed that the monkeys’ brains reorganised themselves to compensate for the peripheral damage. Later, tests on people who had lost an arm or a leg revealed something similar: the brain areas that used to receive sensory input from the lost limbs seemed to get taken over by circuits that register sensations from other parts of the body (which may account for the ‘phantom limb’ phenomenon). Signs of brain plasticity have been observed in healthy people, too. Violinists, for instance, tend to have larger cortical areas devoted to processing signals from their fingering hands than do non-violinists. And brain scans of London cab drivers taken in the 1990s revealed that they had larger than normal posterior hippocampuses – a part of the brain that stores spatial representations – and that the increase in size was proportional to the number of years they had been in the job.

The brain’s ability to change its own structure, as Carr sees it, is nothing less than ‘a loophole for free thought and free will’. But, he hastens to add, ‘bad habits can be ingrained in our neurons as easily as good ones.’ Indeed, neuroplasticity has been invoked to explain depression, tinnitus, pornography addiction and masochistic self-mutilation (this last is supposedly a result of pain pathways getting rewired to the brain’s pleasure centres). Once new neural circuits become established in our brains, they demand to be fed, and they can hijack brain areas devoted to valuable mental skills. Thus, Carr writes: ‘The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains.’ And the internet ‘delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions’. He quotes the brain scientist Michael Merzenich, a pioneer of neuroplasticity and the man behind the monkey experiments in the 1960s, to the effect that the brain can be ‘massively remodelled’ by exposure to the internet and online tools like Google. ‘THEIR HEAVY USE HAS NEUROLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES,’ Merzenich warns in caps – in a blog post, no less.

continue reading: from the London Review of Books

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