Another nice write-up surrounding Carr’s “The Shallows”
Everyone knows that our digital age — from the always-on Web to our bleeping PDAs — is here to stay.
But just how detrimental to our powers of concentration is our penchant for ping-ponging around the Web and digesting each new tweet?
One big triumph of human culture was the learned ability to pay attention to one thing for a long time, which the arrival of the book helped promote
But the Internet is about skimming and scanning and de-emphasizes our shifting into deeply attentive modes.
Before anyone heaves a PC out the window and retreats to a cave, let it be known that Carr has his detractors. Their point in a nutshell (in case you’ve got a call coming in): From the printing press to television, all new technologies arrive with dire warnings of societal doom (“That TV will rot your brain!” anyone?), and yet humanity sifts out the good and marches on. And so we shall again.
“No question that Carr is driving one of the biggest debates about technology next to privacy issues,” says Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which recently surveyed 895 tech titans about Carr’s thesis and other topics. An overwhelming 75% believed that by 2020, people’s use of the Internet will have enhanced human intelligence.
“The consensus was that new skills will be elevated, such as our ability to hunt for information and look for patterns in broad data,” says Rainie, who, like many of the technorati, started pondering this issue after reading Carr’s opening salvo, a 2008 article in The Atlantic provocatively titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
Can we do it?
Human brain adapts
Most tech pundits don’t dispute that our digital times are changing the way our brains operate, much the same way our noggins had to adapt when, in the mid-15th century, the printing press began making reading available to the masses. So what they prefer to discuss is our behavioral response to the 21st century’s equivalent of Gutenberg’s Renaissance-era creation.
“What we’re really talking about here is a cultural argument, questions such as whether we’ll read fewer novels now that information is bite-size,” says Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, which explores the act of decision-making at a neurological level.
“More and more young people seem to be disconnected from the physical world,” he says. “There’s less time at play in the park, and more time absorbed in devices. It would be helpful if they knew that what they’re doing does impact their neurology.”
“So for every stat you see about how video games can improve certain mental facilities,” Small says, “we should all be aware of the importance of taking breaks, turning off devices and simply talking in person.”
Sarah Parks, 28, a physician’s assistant from Watertown, Mass., says she has mixed feelings about growing up bombarded by technology.
On the one hand, “it’s great for doing things like paying bills while you’re getting your hair done, but it can also be annoying to go to dinner with a friend and see they’re more interested in their e-mail than talking to you,” she says. “So I try to pull myself away from my devices whenever I can.”
USF’s Merzenich applauds such focus. “Any kind of noise in the brain is negative, with long-term impacts on human health,” he says. “My advice is simple: Make sure what you’re doing online is productive, and don’t forget the real world. Go to the park every now and then and just look around. That’s closer to what the human mind was designed for, anyway.”
More people should just get up and go mow the lawn, says Carr, a Paul Revere for our Net age.
“Ultimately, we are all free agents and can make choices,” he says. “If you cherish those solitary moments, there’s nothing else to do but restrain yourself.”