The Internet is melting our brains
The current issue of the Atlantic Monthly (July/August) has an interesting cover story by Nicholas Carr — “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” — about the effects of the Internet revolution on human cognition. I bought the issue at the airport last weekend while waiting for my flight to Mo*Con III and found it to be quite a worthy read, especially since the author’s description of some of the changes he has noticed in his own mental life under the spell of perpetual Internet usage parallel certain effects that I’ve been noticing in myself for the past several years.
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. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. 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. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets — reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)
For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. 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.
Carr goes on to offer a concise and fascinating history of the effects of new communications technologies on human cultures and societies, going all the way back to Plato’s low view of the development of writing itself (since he, Plato, feared dependence on the written word would siphon away people’s mental abilities), to the invention of the printing press, to Nietzsche’s admission that acquiring a typewriter had changed the character of his writing. Carr finishes by advising that we should be skeptical of his very skepticism about the Internet, since all revolutions in communication technologies have been met with similar Luddite-esque condemnations. That said, he still holds out the possibility that he’s right, and that something valuable, namely, our ability and even our desire to think and reflect deeply and to have our selves and societies formed and informed by this mental and moral depth, is currently under assault and in danger of being lost:
Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. 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. If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.
Any longtime reader of The Teeming Brain will know that I exult in finding such thoughts and feeling expressed so well, and also in expressing them myself. From Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, to Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends, to Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, to dystopian fictional visions like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and, most recently, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and Other Stories (for which I wrote a glowing review for the new issue of Dead Reckonings), I am fascinated by the exploration of the changes that modern mass and digital communications technologies are wreaking upon our civilizations and cultures.
Like Carr, my fascination has a personal aspect. Ever since I was an undergraduate student majoring in communication and minoring in philosophy at the University of Missouri, where I was introduced to culture and media criticism and the high intellectual tradition of the West (and also the East), I have been obsessed with understanding the personal effects of the technology and mass media cocoon into which I was born, and which has grown astonishingly more comprehensive and complex in just my lifetime, which hasn’t yet reached its 40th year. Most recently I have noticed that my entry into the Internet world, which occurred definitively in 1996, has produced a progressive change in my attention span and concentrative abilities exactly like the one Carr describes.
Lately I have been taking steps to remedy that. I have reduced my online time (although not my total computer usage time). I have deliberately sought out a few long works of fiction to read. Interestingly, my ability to read in long-form has been impacted almost exclusively in the realm of fiction. I am able to read nonfiction just fine. But I have noticed a growing impatience with long fictional works over the years that is attributable, when I reflect on it and trace it, to the very phenomenon Carr describes. Presently I’m pleased to report that I am in process of successfully rehabilitating myself.
Lest anybody think that these fears are new, I’ll give the last word to Bradbury himself. About a year ago (May 30, 2007), L.A. Weekly published a fine article about him titled “Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted” that featured a present-day Bradbury arguing that his most famous novel is not really about censorship, as has long been received opinion by the general public and literary establishment, but is instead about the insidious and pernicious effects of television on society. Bradbury is convinced — and so am I — that present-day trends in television and American society confirm the book’s warning.
The author of the article wisely delved into Bradbury’s history and discovered a letter Bradbury wrote in 1951 to Richard Matheson that covered the same territory. The words of the then-thirty-something Bradbury about the effects of radio on people’s ability to think, concentrate, and read serve as a fascinating touchstone to Carr’s Atlantic article, written 57 years later, about the effects of the Internet on the same activities:
As early as 1951, Bradbury presaged his fears about TV, in a letter about the dangers of radio, written to fantasy and science-fiction writer Richard Matheson. Bradbury wrote that “Radio has contributed to our ‘growing lack of attention.’… This sort of hopscotching existence makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again. We have become a short story reading people, or, worse than that, a QUICK reading people.”
If Bradbury was right then, and if Carr is right now, then we have been living through the intellectual fall of our civilization for more than half a century, and have been dressing it up and passing it off to ourselves en masse as a wonderful, liberating cultural advance. This bears much reflection and meditation — if, that is, we’re still able to do it.