Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Is the internet playing with our minds?

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene towards the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr

Did you get to the end of the above quotation without pressing a link or playing the video? Reading anything on the internet is full of distractions, pop-ups, siren voices inviting us to click, link, search and surf. Unless I make the effort to print an article from the internet, I invariably don’t read it from beginning to end. Online I’ll skim read it and if it doesn’t hold my attention or I find it too difficult, I’m back to the Google search engine. Even when I am reading, I catch myself taking sneaky glances at my e-mails, Statcounter, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, etc. I am snacking or grazing on information, images and ideas. I have the suspicion that when I log into the internet, I am logging out of my usual ways of thinking. Reading a book and reading a blog or an article on a website feel like two cognitively different experiences. But, are they? And if they are, does it really matter?

Of course, the fact that all this immense store of data on the internet is just a click away is widely accepted as having radically benefited mankind. This is hard to dispute and only the Luddite would argue that we would be better off without the internet. When Tim Berners-Lee composed the code for the world wide web, the way human beings collected and transmitted information and ideas changed for ever. Now, with a quick Google search, I can find out within seconds that, for example, A Space Odyssey was released in 1968. No more traipsing to the library and wandering the stacks. For cherry picking information (the way I mostly use the net) I find the internet invaluable, but there are moments when I wonder how helpful it is if we want to think a bit deeper about things and ideas? How is the internet affecting our cognitive faculties and our ability to think more seriously?

One of the criticisms of this blog is that it is not bloggish enough. It’s not punchy, pithy or journalistic. It’s not angry, opinionated or flashy. The paragraphs are too long, the language too literary and rhetorical, the ideas too culturally arcane. These criticisms are spot on. But that’s the kind of blog I chose to create. Yes, there are links and videos, but I wanted to see if it was possible to put ideas and their expression at the centre of this medium in a way that was less feverish and less about convenience. I wondered if the effort and patience that have been essential requirements when reading a book could still be part of reading a blog? I’m not sure. And I become positively pessimistic when I read the pathologist Bruce Friedman, who also blogs about the use of computers in medicine, admit, “I can’t read War and Peace anymore, I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” I am beginning to suspect that this experience is not uncommon.

I think something is happening to our minds (or, at least, to my mind). We appear to be moving from a linear, narrative processing of information (largely influenced by the book) to something more staccato and disjointed (largely influenced by the Internet). A more contemplative, focused reading of material is being replaced by a hurried, superficial reading that fillets essays and articles for the “essential” facts and discards the rest as superfluous waste. We are becoming, in the words of one commentator, “skilled hunters,” butchering the involved, challenging argument for the gobbet, soundbite, snazzy snippet.

It appears I’m not the only one that has these concerns. In his book, The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, Nicholas Carr examines similar anxieties but places them in a broader technological context. He argues that there is growing scientific evidence which shows the internet is changing the way our brains function and that for all the benefits of the internet, there may also be real losses. Like the computer, HAL, Carr suggests that our minds may be going and being replaced with a radically new synaptic organization:

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenburg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the centre of art, science and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.

The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, Nicholas Carr, Atlantic Books, London, 2010

1 comment:

  1. Interesting... and you said all that without mentioning the word 'young'. Young people are the absolute proof that this is happening. I asked my daughter the other day, whom I was actually talking to, but who was texting friends on her return from Morocco with her newly activated phone: "How many conversations are you having there?". She said "4". Ergo - The Shallows. Youth is wading in them, if that is not a contradiction in terms.