Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What the Internet Does to Us

Many books and articles have been written of late about the effect the instant information and instant diversions of the internet have on our lives, on our thoughts, and on our brains themselves. Opinions vary from concluding the internet has had a terrible effect and it will only get worse, to contending the internet has been fantastic and it will only get better. Adam Gopnik has written a very entertaining and perceptive revue of a number of the recent books on the topic in an article in The New Yorker: The Information: How the internet gets inside us.

The doomsters are the more interesting. One author claimed that the use of the internet, and its ability to rapidly switch from one topic to another, was rewiring his brain leaving him with an addiction to this rapid access to information. Others, more convincingly, focus on the issue of attention span. Many of us have eureka moments when the solution to a problem pops into our mind almost out of nowhere. But these moments only come because we have concentrated at length on all aspects of the problem, retired exhausted, and consigned the issues to our subconscious—which seems to be a lot smarter than we are. The valid argument is made that using the internet as a source of knowledge deprives us of the quiet solitude that is necessary to think deep thoughts, and is necessary to ingest, to savor, and to lay claim to the meaning of the written word.

The cheerleaders tend to focus on the mind-extending potential the internet provides. The claim is made that having near instantaneous access to more information than we could possible control ourselves will make us more productive and intellectually more powerful.

The enthusiasts seem to be overhyping the potential, and the doomsters are, perhaps, too worried. Only a small percentage of the population has ever been interested in pursuing knowledge intently once freed of academic demands. They will continue to find their knowledge one way or another. Those who fritter away their lives on the internet are the same who frittered away their lives in other modes pre-internet.

We are reminded of the danger and futility of apocalyptic projections. Socrates claimed that the invention of written language would cause atrophy of the memory and diminish cognitive capability. The invention of the printing press was expected to unleash a torrent of mindless documents that would distract all from the study of the classics. And then there was television, supposedly the greatest destroyer of minds.

So life goes on, and, as always, technical evolution is better for some and worse for others. Gopnik points out that the real change induced by the internet is the manner in which we comport ourselves while on it.

"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."

So we log in and become who we really are, not who we pretend to be? There is some truth to that, but there are some who think that there are advantages to being unleashed on the internet. This article describes a teacher’s experience.

"Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. ‘What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?’

So a bumbling, incoherent student can become a clever, witty, and eloquent writer on the internet when freed from the shackles of academic pursuits. Poor students everywhere rejoice, you need only drop out and start a blog.

Before I started writing posts for this blog I never wrote much of anything. I was surprised at how clever, incisive, and eloquent I seemed to be. There was definitely no prior evidence that this might be the case. I thought perhaps I had been possessed by one of those Muse things, or perhaps it was the wine I sipped while I wrote. It is rather disappointing to think that the transformation was merely due to anonymously dwelling on the internet.

In any event, all the above is speculation. There are some hard facts about the effects of sitting in front of a computer for hours navigating around the digital world. Roni Caryn Rabin reports in the New York Times on some recent research.

"The latest findings, published this week....indicate that the amount of leisure time spent sitting in front of a screen can have such an overwhelming, seemingly irreparable impact on one’s health that physical activity doesn’t produce much benefit."

"The study followed 4,512 middle-aged Scottish men for a little more than four years on average. It found that those who said they spent two or more leisure hours a day sitting in front of a screen were at double the risk of a heart attack or other cardiac event compared with those who watched less. Those who spent four or more hours of recreational time in front of a screen were 50 percent more likely to die of any cause. It didn’t matter whether the men were physically active for several hours a week — exercise didn’t mitigate the risk associated with the high amount of sedentary screen time."

It may come as a surprise to some, but evolution did not place much value on the ability to sit still for long periods of time. That was a skill that contributed little to survivability, so it is not too surprising that our bodies might respond in unexpected ways to that modern practice.

"One possible mechanism, demonstrated in animal studies, is that being sedentary may affect lipid metabolism. Prolonged inactivity appears to sharply reduce the activity of an important enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which is responsible for breaking down circulating blood lipids and making them available to muscles for energy, Dr. Stamatakis said. Lowered enzyme activity leads to higher levels of fats and triglycerides in the blood, and to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Exercise has very little impact on the enzyme’s activity, he said."

Scary stuff! I wonder how many people died because they spent hours sitting with a book in hand. How many people did Proust kill?—or Tolstoy? Perhaps the age of the mobile device will save us from an early grave—unless many are run over while diverted by a brief moment of enlightenment.

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