Nick Carr is no stranger to the provocative when it comes to technology.
His 2003 Harvard Business Review article "Why IT Doesn't Matter Anymore" suggested that information technology was becoming ubiquitous and no longer provided a competitive advantage, despite the fact that it would still consume considerable investment.
Needless to say, many in the technology business, for obvious reasons, didn't react favorably.
But Carr has done it again and this time he is discussing something considerably more important and far-reaching.
He's not asking whether or not business investments in technology are a waste, but asking if the internet is changing our brains for the worse.
In his article in The Atlantic entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Carr ponders why he doesn't seem to be thinking the way he used to:
"Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy."
"Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do."
Carr thinks he knows why - the internet:
"My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
Of course, Carr is not alone. The symptoms of attention-deficit disorder seem to be characteristic of today's culture.
We increasingly read blogs instead of books. We increasingly watch YouTube instead of TV. We are more likely to receive a text message or email than a hand-written letter.
Carr's hypothesis is quite simple. The internet has changed the way we consume and "process" information and thus has changed the way we think or, more appropriately, don't think.
He notes that our brains are "almost infinitely malleable" and that, contrary to prior belief, scientists have found that "even the adult mind 'is very plastic.'"
Because our brains are constantly rewiring themselves based on the stimuli we feed them, is it really all that hard to believe that the behaviors borne of the use of the internet as a primary means to consume information have rewired our brains in some fashion?
The answer is no.
And beyond the anecdotal evidence from countless individuals like Carr, studies are starting to trickle in hinting that something is indeed occurring.
University College London recently published the results of a five-year study of online research habits based on the observations of how visitors to two popular research websites used them.
"They found that people using the sites exhibited 'a form of skimming activity,' hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would 'bounce' out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it."
The study's authors come to the conclusion that it's "clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense."
Skeptics are likely to ask "So what?" They will suggest that even if our brains are changing and we're reading differently, it could be for the better. After all, it would be difficult to argue that today's tech-savvy youth are not far more adept at finding information than their parents and grandparents.
But at the same time, Carr points out Tufts University developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf's observation that the internet has in many ways made us "mere decoders of information."
In her words:
"We are not only what we read. We are how we read."
"The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds.
"In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking."
A small 2006 study by the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut demonstrates what happens when individuals don't engage in "deep reading" and hints at the implications of a society in which individuals have access to large amounts of information through the internet but lack the critical thinking skills needed to analyze that information.
Researchers asked middle school students to evaluate a fake website that provided information about an endangered species that does not exist - the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. All students sent to the website fell for the hoax, all but one ranked the website as "very credible" and most were unable to locate the clues that the website was fake even after being told that it was.
This highlights what I believe to be the most frightening implication of an internet that can change our brains.
It's not simply that the possibility that " information overload " promoted by an internet that makes everything " instantly available " will lead to a society filled with individuals incapable of focusing, concentrating and thinking deeply but that it will lead to a society that lacks all perspective and that is infinitely corruptible because the masses lack an ability to " separate the wheat from the chaff. "
In the past, I've argued that many of today's technologies and internet services have contributed to an increase in narcissism, reduction in meaningful social interactions, degradation of basic values and have even made happiness more elusive for those who seek friendship online but in reality only become more isolated and lonely.
Despite being a skeptic, I would not argue that today's technologies haven't been beneficial in many ways. That said, we should not gloss over their negative impacts.
Take technology's impact on language, for instance. In a prior post, I pondered:
"If language and thought are inexorably linked, one must also consider the impact of today’s technologies on how we think and perceive the world around us."
What's disappointing is that so many mindlessly celebrate the technologies that are leading not only to the possible degradation of the rich culture humanity has developed over the millennia but the possible degradation of who and what we are.
Today's internet epitomizes this. In the era of Web 2.0, the opinion of the amateur trumps the knowledge of the educated, skilled and experienced. A blog may be as trusted as a book or newspaper.
Participating in the "conversation" (read: talking) is more important than listening. And people like Robert Scoble bask in the belief that they access information seconds earlier - all the while not only refusing to question the practical importance of this, but refusing to question the value of the information itself.
While I think Carr could have chosen a better title for his article than "Is Google making us stupid?", I find that many of Carr's critics are being a bit disingenuous by focusing on the title more than the argument (ironically appropriate in the context of this discussion).
One such critic is Blaise Alleyne of TechDirt. He argues that "skimming is human filtering" and that "people are just stupid irrespective of technology."
In his opinion, there's no reason to evaluate the possibility that the internet as a medium can impact the ways in which we consume information and that the impact may not be completely positive.
Alleyne thus seems to dismiss any notion that our environments and experiences condition us to engage in behaviors that eventually shape the way we think. In Alleyne's world, people are just somehow stupid.
Of course, Alleyne is apparently unaware of neuroplasticity.
In my opinion, a world in which individuals have been conditioned to consume vast amounts of information but essentially "think" about none of it is not one that we should ignorantly embrace because the world this is creating is quite ugly.
News.com's Charles Cooper links to a blog post by Josh Waitzkin, a former chess champion, who returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, to hear a former professor, Dennis Dalton, give a lecture.
He was shocked at what he observed:
"Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief).
"From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban Outfitters.com. She had finally found her shoes!"
While it would be naive to place all the blame on the internet and other technological distractions for this prevalent " multi-tasking " behavior that is filled with consumption but devoid of true thought, it is hard to deny that these distractions by their very nature encourage it.
If the hypothesis promoted by Nick Carr and others that the internet (and related technologies) are not only encouraging this behavior, but rapidly making it a part of the way our brains operate is correct, it's worth considering the implications for our future.
I can't help but hear the refrain from Jamiroquai's song "Virtual Insanity."
Futures made of virtual insanity
Now always seem to be governed by this love we have
For useless, twisting of our new technology
Oh now there is no sound for we all live underground