What the Internet is doing to our Brains
By Nicholas Carr
The development of that magnificent resource for the mind, the Internet, has put us at a turning point in human history. The development of all the tools of the mind has provided turning points and in making his case Nicholas Carr takes us through what happened to us when we went from clay to papyrus to paper and from tablets to scrolls to books. With every one of these changes the world shifted some. Not as much as now though.
At the same time that the Internet is changing the world, bringing us closer together around masses of information, it is changing our ability to think and it is changing our brains in dangerous ways. The issue is not the content of the Internet, but its process.
The human adapts to its tools and its tasks. Give a man a hammer for a lifetime’s work and his body shapes to effectively drive nails. Take away his pen and give him a typewriter with a ball and his prose turns from fluid to staccato. (That happened to Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century.) In that process of adaption the brain, since it is not a machine but an organ, changes. These changes can be seen with instruments and their results observed in human behavior. This is the world of Nicholas Carr.
I will describe a tiny fraction of what the Internet is doing to our brains.
1) The brain, confronted with a glowing screen and the ability to hypertext its way from one interruption to another across the universe of knowledge from what its buddy in Australia thinks of rutabagas, to the spelling of rutabagas to the history of rutabagas to dishes that can be prepared from rutabagas leaves the brain sliding from one fact of surface interest to another fact even less useful, until it occurs to the brain to pursue the prompt on the pop-up menu and check the weather and get off of this slide onto the weather channel where a five minute video on playful seals on San Francisco Bay can be watched for free which does remind the brain that it could slide over to Facebook and find out if anyone “liked” the picture of the family cat posted an hour ago. And many do. Twenty-three “likes,” praise the Lord.
Just as the carpenter’s arm grew it muscles to deal effectively with the hammer the brain changes to succeed in a slippy slidey world of itty bitty bits of knowledge intended to interest momentarily and then disappear.
So what will happen when it confronts a life choice? Will this passive instrument skidding from meaningless bit to another meaningless bit see itself suddenly as an agent? A “decider?” Or will it in panic seek the next button to push, even if that button bears the label “Self Destruct?”
According to Time magazine this is happening now in the Silicon Valley high schools; kids depressed and without a sense of agency pushed around by the ripples on the surface of the Internet are choosing to leave life. Rutabagas have lost their interest. Having your cat liked did not fill the hole intended for having yourself loved. And this child is not accustomed to doing things about things. This child does not do. This child is done to. With the same alacrity that he or she pursued the prompt to watch the seals he or she may “decide” it is time to end this.
2) I discovered my wife of the last forty-three years with whom I have raised two children and now five grandchildren with much happiness when while sitting on her front lawn, I seriously told her my goals in life. She thought they were so funny she actually rolled over laughing.
If I had instituted a computer search what algorithm would have found her an appropriate match? Yet this brain of mine sorted through whatever book-formed channels it had and locked in immediately on her as the “one,” the antidote to the man who takes himself too seriously. The Internet would have provided me many potential companions, each more serious than the last. That is the way it works. It finds my interests and then adds to the pile. If I follow its suggestions I become narrower and narrower, a better candidate to respond to the advertisers, a defined target, and a wealth of possibilities pass me by.
3) For something to remain in long-term memory it must spend two hours in short term memory. (There is actually a tiny physical growth that must happen.) But on the trip through rutabaga land, things go in and out too quickly to be grafted on the long-term nodules. Of course it still exists in the computer’s memory. When you know you need it, it can be sought. However the advantage of the human memory is that it coughs up stored information when you need it but do not know you need it. Not only does your intellect call on your memory, but your memory initiates conversations with your intellect. You won’t have that ability any longer. And since your long-term memory is not being used the section of the brain devoted to long-term memory has already begun to shrink.
Distant memories of your mother’s tears, your father’s embrace, your sisters admiration and your little brother’s needs will be crowded out of the brain, and I doubt if you will find them in Internet land either.
4) There are now residential therapy centers to assist the hooked to unhook from the Internet. The Internet lights up the same section of the brain as does cocaine. Didn’t’ know those grade school kids were getting a buzz? Makes what may be happening to my grandchildren a little less cute and a little less funny.
Read The Shallows yourself. What I have written is just a corner of the future described there. See if it scares you! And if it does, see who else you can scare with it. Hope they have enough of an attention span left to read the book. (A sign of the times is that people who used to write books no longer can read them. Not enough slippy and slidey. Boring!)
Can the majority of us survive without complex and nuanced thought? Without deep and poignant memories? Do we want to?