Death by a thousand distracting cuts

That’s the title of a review of Nicholas Carr’s book ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains‘ on by someone who bought the book. But I liked its one-line summation of what the internet is doing to us.  According to the review (I haven’t read the book myself), the book grapples with the following questions:

  • Does greater access to knowledge lead to greater knowledge?
  • Does an ever-increasing plethora of facts & data amount to wisdom?
  • Does breadth of knowledge mean the same as depth of knowledge?
  • Does multitasking mean the same as complexity?

On the face of it, the answer seems no, as all of may reflexively respond. Nor is it a new question, but with the internet, the magnification is huge.

It’s known that the brain is not a static entity, throughout our lives it has the ability to reshape itself (in terms of new memory and ways of doing things), so that we adapt our values, our customs and our ‘mindsets’ as we progress along with the zeitgeist. Drugs can modify the way the brain works; Kipling once described words as the most powerful drugs humans have ever known. The internet delivers us words at the rate of millions in a day; is it a narcotic addiction we have developed to it?

[I clearly am addicted. Not having access to the internet can actually make me ill. I’m at my worst during the long commutes from home to office and back, when I have no net access. The phone is a poor substitute.]

Studies are showing that the internet’s properties are also becoming properties of our brains. Shorter attention spans (as parents of internet-immersed children can testify), a dependence on a huge amount of information to make decisions, an inability to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant (and perhaps more dangerously, the good from the bad) – all these and more seem to be shaping the way our brains work. (A previous blog post had examined a smaller aspect – how GPS was affecting our brains.)

The internet has led to bizarre things like cyber-suicide pacts, cyber stalking, and paedophile tourism, and the people involved in them are often both victim and criminal – lost in a warped morality, but their ability to find like-minded people on the net means that they can escape the social mores that trap them.

To cite Carr,

Over the last 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.

On reading a book, he writes

my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. . . . I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the test.

[This happens to me too. I can never read a webpage from start to end in one go…I seem to need to read four at one time, flipping between them like we flip TV channels. Luckily book reading isn’t going that way. Yet.]

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus testifies to something similar on her own review of Carr’s book. She writes, of her own experience:

Once upon a time, which is to say before the advent of the Internet, my work as a journalist involved reading documents, making phone calls, attending events. Turning to the keyboard, or the screen, was the end of the assembly line.

Now, it seems, it is the totality: I spend hours skittering across the virtual surface of the Web, flitting from place to place, never resting for very long. I read a few sentences — or write a few — and my hand twitches, like an alcoholic reaching for the bottle, toward the BlackBerry.

I must know — now — what has arrived in my inbox, even though almost all of it is junk. I live an alt-tab existence, constantly shuttling among the open windows on my browser. I have switched, in Carr’s formulation, from “reading to power-browsing.” I am a lab rat “constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”

[Replace her name with mine, and you get exactly what I do. Indeed this blog was written the same way.]

But she goes a bit further than Carr. For today’s children are growing up in this environment, with nothing like our generation’s ‘analog past’. They have iPhones, BlackBerrys*, Wii’s, Xboxs, iPads, Palmtops, Laptops, iPods…there’s never a period of quiet. There’s always that latest tweet or status update to check, always some wisecrack to immediately forward to every address book contact on their smartphones. At the age when the brain is far more plastic than a grown-up’s, what could be the consequences? Ruth Marcus worries about the internet’s effect on our hearts.

It is already true that our ‘friends’ exist on Facebook, not in the building across the street. For our generation, that’s because they went to work in the USA or Sharjah, and while they might come for a holiday to their old home two blocks away on the street, Facebook is our way to keep in touch everyday. For the generations following us, physical addresses seem to vanished from their way of thinking.

Marcus writes, touchingly,

My current household technological battle involves making the kids turn off Facebook and cellphones when studying. They believe this to be not only unnecessary but rude: In an age when no one is ever really out of contact, how could they possibly be inaccessible to their friends?

And then there is the disturbing question of how the era of virtual communications affects friendships and personality. Kids prefer text over talk; it is, to them, more efficient. But the inability to discern tone and inflection enhances the possibilities of misunderstanding, and the distancing effect of disembodied language lowers the barrier for hurtful speech.

In a new study, researchers at the University of Michigan found that college students today are about 40 percent lower in empathy, measured by standard personality tests, than their counterparts 20 and 30 years ago. The biggest drop occurred after 2000, coinciding with the rise of online communications and social networking, and the author, Sara Konrath, sees a possible correlation. “Empathy is best activated when you can see another person’s signal for help,” she told USA Today.

So will our children grow up with brains that need a lot more excitement to keep functioning than ours did? Will they display withdrawal symptoms if denied the level of stimulation? Will the need for the internet just keep increasing day by day, just like a narcotic drug whose dosage must keep rising? Is there some kind of blockbuster drug waiting in the wings, to be launched by a big pharmaceutical company?

[I might just be sounding alarmist here.]

The good thing about the internet is that we will know the answers to these questions, sooner rather than later. Whether we will like these answers or not, is another matter.

*The BlackBerry is a device; it’s also a brand name. So what should its plural be – BlackBerrys or BlackBerries? And what of the Wii and Xbox?

About ozymandias

What am I? A body and brain, products of carbon concatenation chemistry, an intelligence and conscience to enable bits of DNA evolve. Maybe a pharaoh, maybe a dung-beetle, never more than a safe conduit for some genes.
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1 Response to Death by a thousand distracting cuts

  1. Pingback: Mental Disorders 101

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