Wading through the Shallows: Is the Internet Really Rewiring our Brains?
I distinctly remember reading Nicholas Carr’s cover story in The Atlantic a few years ago that asked the question, “Is Google Making us Stupid?“. At the time, I was pretty dismissive of Carr’s hypothesis that the way we process the scads of information available to us in the digital age is actually changing the way our minds work, perhaps even for the worst. As a confessed technophile, I tend to focus on the benefits of the plugged in utopia in which we live and leave the hand wringing to the 21st century Luddites. I remember the article so well, in part, because I really wanted to keep it to share with some people, but I accidentally left my copy on an airplane. I was probably too busy checking my phone.
I’ve thought about Carr’s question often since then as I’ve witnessed the rise of the smart phone and experienced first hand what an overdose of connectivity can do to you. So, when I saw that Carr was giving a lecture on his new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains at my Alma Mater yesterday, I decided to check it out.
Carr’s argument is more or less unchanged, but he’s delved much deeper into the subject, looking at things like neuroplasticity and how the brain can literally rearrange itself and the way we process information as a result of external stimuli. He also makes some strong arguments about how studies have shown that new technologies from email to texting to Twitter have pushed us to value the immediate over the important. These constant interruptions and distractions make it hard for us to focus on a single task for extended periods of time, which means that the technology is pushing us toward more surface-level contemplation of the tasks we take on each day.
It also means that we could ultimately be less productive, despite the promised utility of this age of digital enlightenment. Carr points out that multitasking is a myth. The brain cannot actually focus on more than one task at a time, so when you rapidly switch between tasks, your mind is actually clearing one task away to quickly pick up the next. There is a cost to this rapid switching of focus, and it’s not a huge leap to imagine that engaging in this activity day after day would mess with our heads a bit. We certainly see this in the marketing we do today. We’re very focused on the impatient consumer who wants to search quickly for something and find the answer right away – probably in order to respond to a couple of inane texts with minimal delay. Even as I sit down to write this blog post, I find my eyes drawn to the browser tabs with updating Facebook notifications, the 118 new tweets (literally!) that have come in since I looked a few minutes ago or the flashing IM window from a friend who wants to chat about basketball.
That’s all a bit depressing to me. I was hoping Carr would have this grand solution to share with the group, but the talk was a bit thin on practical ways to deal with the problem. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising; there’s really no way to stop the shift. Technology is not slowing down, and people will only be more connected as smart phone penetration continues to the climb.
But something else struck me about the lecture; not once did I see anyone pull out a phone. I can’t remember the last time I was in a meeting or at a movie or any other gathering where people weren’t glued to their various devices. Part of this was no doubt due to the polite academic environment, but I think it was more than that. It was almost as if Carr’s explication of the problem gave us all a moment of pause amidst the virtual gale that otherwise surrounds us. That gave me a bit of hope. Perhaps being conscious of the problem will encourage people to take a few moments to unplug and spend some time alone with their thoughts. That’s a pretty important consideration as we march boldly into our collective digital tomorrow.
My first order of business will be spending some quality time with Carr’s book. Wait. It’s 276 pages? There’s no way I can sit still that long.