Thursday, March 24, 2011

Is the Internet Changing the Way Our Minds Work?

Is the Internet Changing the Way Our Minds Work? The trivial answer to this question is yes—everything we do or sense results in a modification to our brains. A more useful response might be that there is no evolutionary basis for reading; reading is an acquired skill that is learned from scratch as part of a person’s growth process. The internet is a new source that will be accommodated just as previous “new” sources were. Again, the answer is yes—but so what? There are those who wish to claim that the type of interaction with words and images provided by the internet is altering, negatively, our ability to concentrate and to engage in complex thought processes. This is a serious allegation and it deserves consideration.

Adam Gopnik addresses this issue in an article in The New Yorker: The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us. There is also a good article addressing the same topic in the London Review of Books by Jim Holt: Smarter, Happier, More Productive. Gopnik takes the broader approach, but both authors cover much of the same material, although from different perspectives.

Gopnik defines the issue as being less about content of information and more about the means. It is not so much a question of what, but rather of how much and of how quickly.
“The scale of the transformation is such that an ever-expanding literature has emerged to censure or celebrate it. A series of books explaining why books no longer matter is a paradox that Chesterton would have found implausible, yet there they are, and they come in the typical flavors: the eulogistic, the alarmed, the sober, and the gleeful.”

“All....kinds appear among the new books about the Internet: call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.”
Gopnik recounts and discusses some of the outpourings in his three categories. The Never-betters tend to be over the top, certainly premature, and not very compelling. The Better-Nevers require a detailed response, but we will leave that to the Holt article. Gopnik is at his best in addressing the attitudes of the Ever-Wasers.

Gopnik points out that if this is an information revolution, it isn’t the first or necessarily the most threatening. How about printing materials for the masses?
“Everyone complained about what the new information technologies were doing to our minds. Everyone said that the flood of books produced a restless, fractured attention. Everyone complained that pamphlets and poems were breaking kids’ ability to concentrate, that big good handmade books were ignored, swept aside by printed works that, as Erasmus said, “are foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad.” The reader consulting a card catalogue in a library was living a revolution as momentous, and as disorienting, as our own. The book index was the search engine of its era, and needed to be explained at length to puzzled researchers—as, for that matter.... did the idea of ‘looking things up.’ That uniquely evil and necessary thing the comprehensive review of many different books on a related subject, with the necessary oversimplification of their ideas that it demanded, was already around in 1500, and already being accused of missing all the points. In the period when many of the big, classic books that we no longer have time to read were being written, the general complaint was that there wasn’t enough time to read big, classic books.”
And then there was television.
“Yet everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of ‘interiority’ was said for decades about television, and just as loudly. Jerry Mander’s ‘Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,’ in the nineteen-seventies, turned on television’s addictive nature and its destruction of viewers’ inner lives; a little later, George Trow proposed that television produced the absence of context, the disintegration of the frame—the very things, in short, that the Internet is doing now.

“Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something.”
Gopnik has apparently missed what is perhaps the first, and the boldest, complaint about new sources of information. Holt comes to the rescue
“Books also serve as external memory-storage devices; that is why Socrates, in the Phaedrus, warned that the innovation of writing would lead to the atrophy of human memory.”
Gopnik also provides interesting insight into how the availability of the internet has affected our communication opportunities, rather than our brain function.
“What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. The things that have usually lived in the darker recesses or mad corners of our mind—sexual obsessions and conspiracy theories, paranoid fixations and fetishes—are now out there: you click once and you can read about the Kennedy autopsy or the Nazi salute or hog-tied Swedish flight attendants. But things that were once external and subject to the social rules of caution and embarrassment—above all, our interactions with other people—are now easily internalized, made to feel like mere workings of the id left on its own. (I’ve felt this myself, writing anonymously on hockey forums: it is easy to say vile things about Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the N.H.L., with a feeling of glee rather than with a sober sense that what you’re saying should be tempered by a little truth and reflection.) Thus the limitless malice of Internet commenting: it’s not newly unleashed anger but what we all think in the first order, and have always in the past socially restrained if only thanks to the look on the listener’s face—the monstrous music that runs through our minds is now played out loud.”
Some people even create blogs where they flaunt their opinions on any topic they choose, knowing full well that without the internet, they would have no one around interested in listening.
“Everything once inside is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet, and which all the Better-Nevers rightly testify to, has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.”
One of the better known of the Better-Never class is The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr. Holt’s article is a review of this book.
“’The medium does matter,’ Carr has written. ‘As a technology, a book focuses our attention, isolates us from the myriad distractions that fill our everyday lives. A networked computer does precisely the opposite. It is designed to scatter our attention. . . . Knowing that the depth of our thought is tied directly to the intensity of our attentiveness, it’s hard not to conclude that as we adapt to the intellectual environment of the Net our thinking becomes shallower’.”

“’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.’”
At the heart of Carr’s argument is the assumption that his experience is shared by a significant number of us.
“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’.”
Carr’s specific claims are
The bad habits we develop on the internet become ingrained in our neuronal structure.

We are delivered information faster than it can be processed into long term memory, leading to a deficit in learning.

The interactivity provided by the internet is addictive and bad habits drive out good habits.
Holt finds very little evidence to support Carr’s contentions, and finds Carr’s own confirming sources to be equivocal at best. His refutations are eloquent and perhaps more gentle than warranted.

The subject of “neuroplasticity” earns this response.
"Many in the neuroscience community scoff at such claims. The brain is not ‘a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience’, Steven Pinker has insisted. Its wiring may change a bit when we learn a new fact or skill, but its basic cognitive architecture remains the same. And where is the evidence that using the internet can ‘massively remodel’ the brain?"
As for the issue of long term memory detention:
“Even if computers can improve our fluid intelligence, perhaps they are inimical to crystallised intelligence – that is, to the acquisition of knowledge. This seems to be Carr’s fall-back position. ‘The net is making us smarter,’ he writes, ‘only if we define intelligence by the net’s own standards. If we take a broader and more traditional view of intelligence – if we think about the depth of our thought rather than just its speed – we have to come to a different and considerably darker conclusion.’ Why is the ‘buzzing’ brain of the computer user inferior to the ‘calm mind’ of the book reader? Because, Carr submits, a buzzing brain is an overloaded one. Our ability to acquire knowledge depends on information getting from our ‘working memory’ – the mind’s temporary scratch pad – into our long-term memory. The working memory contains what we are conscious of at a given moment; it is estimated that it can hold only as many as four items of information at a time, which quickly vanish if they are not refreshed. The working memory is thus the bottleneck in the learning process – or, to use Carr’s image, the ‘thimble’ by which we must fill up the ‘bathtub’ of our long-term memory. A book provides a ‘steady drip’ of information which, through sustained concentration, we can transfer by means of this thimble with little spillage. But on the web, Carr writes, ‘we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next,’ and what we end up with is ‘a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source’.”

“This is a seductive model, but the empirical support for Carr’s conclusion is both slim and equivocal. To begin with, there is evidence that web surfing can increase the capacity of working memory. And.... No study has shown that internet use degrades the ability to learn from a book, though that doesn’t stop people feeling that this is so....”
And, as for the addictive nature of the internet:
"Perhaps what he needs are better strategies of self-control. Has he considered disconnecting his modem and Fedexing it to himself overnight, as some digital addicts say they have done? After all, as Steven Pinker noted a few months ago in the New York Times, ‘distraction is not a new phenomenon.’ Pinker scorns the notion that digital technologies pose a hazard to our intelligence or wellbeing. Aren’t the sciences doing well in the digital age, he asks? Aren’t philosophy, history and cultural criticism flourishing too? There is a reason the new media have caught on, Pinker observes: ‘Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not.’ Without the internet, how can we possibly keep up with humanity’s ballooning intellectual output?”
One comes away with the image of Carr as a rather silly person lacking in willpower, whose “addiction” has led him to engage in some shallow thinking. After all, if his thesis is to be believed, one must conclude that he has become an unreliable witness.

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