“Contemplative Man, the fellow who came to understand the world sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, is a goner. He’s being succeeded by Flickering Man, the fellow who darts from link to link, conjuring the world out of continually refreshed arrays of isolate pixels, shadows of shadows. The linearity of reason is blurring into the nonlinearity of impression; after five centuries of wakefulness, we’re lapsing into a dream state.” — Nicholas Carr
Note From Stephen: This is a moderately long article. In the spirit of it’s content, I resisted the urge to shorten it even though I know that means fewer people will read it all the way through.
Our brains are plastic; their structure changes based upon the way we use them. This is no longer in dispute. Therefore, it would be reasonable to conclude the Internet and our modern, always connected, world is changing our brains in new ways. We may actually be changing the way we think in important ways. Whether this is good or bad is a subject of considerable debate.
Aside from changes in the wiring of your brain, there is evidence that the way information on the Internet is organized impacts how much of it we retain; how well we learn. As an example, when we are reading on the internet we are typically bombarded with a lot of decisions to make. The very existence of hypermedia links require our brain to make a decision on whether to click on them or not. These decisions and other distractions increase the cognitive load on our brain and make us less likely to remember the material. The more of your very limited cognitive resources you focus on encoding and integrating the ideas you are exposed to, the more likely you will be to remember them. The web is not optimized for that kind of focus.
An excellent tool to remove the clutter and distractions surrounding text on websites is Readability. Try it out on this article.
“The ability to skim text is every bit as important as the ability to read deeply. What is different, and troubling, is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for deeper study, scanning is becoming an end in itself – our preferred way of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts. We’ve reached the point where a Rhodes Scholar like Florida State’s Joe O’Shea – a philosophy major, no less, is comfortable admitting not only that he doesn’t read books but that he doesn’t see any particular need to read them.” — Nicholas Carr
If you care about your intellectual self, you owe it to yourself to consider how your Internet behavior is affecting your brain. A thoughtful argument that we are losing something important with our Internet ways can be found in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. I found the book to be a compelling and thought-provoking read. As a book, it is much more in-depth and persuasive than his famous article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” For an alternative viewpoint try Clay Shirky who is endlessly enthusiastic about the potential of the Internet. His latest book is Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. The Google article and and a series of articles by various authors in response are available on the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog.
I think both sides are right. Google and the Internet are making us both smart and stupid. There is endless potential, but if we are not careful we may be risking some of the traits we value most in ourselves. I for one don’t want to become just another node on some giant global Google brain. Wisdom and creativity spring from a deep well of personal knowledge and experience that is absorbed, integrated, and shuffled over a period of time. People who believe they can outsource their knowledge to the Internet, and this is quite common among the young, will be missing that deep well of knowledge from which our intellect arises. That well doesn’t come from the shallows of social media and infotainment. Unless we drag ourselves out of the shallows and into some deep water on a regular basis, I think we are indeed losing some of what makes us special.
Attention spans have shrunk to what seems like a few seconds. How many of you can sit still for a 10 minute video? You would think people are being asked to watch 4 hour documentary on the history channel. Unfortunately the best ones are usually the longer ones; occasionally they have some meat (TED talks for example).
Deep and reflective thinking seems to be disappearing and I think it is in large degree a result of changes brought about by Internet. If it is still there it is being overwhelmed by the shallows. Writers no longer write what they think, they write what they hope will rank in Google. Despite all the touted diversity of the Internet, obsession with Search Engine Optimization often takes priority over content. Google is funneling us into the narrow and boring land of the common.
We are undergoing a monumental technological and cultural shift in the way we live, work, and communicate. We are probably undergoing a significant shift in the way our brains work. On the whole I think it is a positive change and I for one would never want to go back to the pre-Internet era. I doubt many others would either. I have benefited in immeasurable ways from this information explosion; I feel like the world is literally at my fingertips.
The key to thriving in this new world while retaining some of our intellectual heritage is a sense of balance. I know that sounds cliché but it may be nowhere more important than with regard to the Internet. Unfortunately, if you watch the trends especially in young people who have grown up with all this, balance is exactly what is missing.
Here are some suggested alternatives to being online; alternatives that encourage deeper intellectual development:
- Disconnect for significant periods of time – When you disconnect that means stop texting, talking on your cell, and checking email on your PDA. You should disconnect for hours at a time and if that is too hard start slowly. I know this is hard; it’s hard for me. That seductive addiction to the online world will want to drag you back. But you simply can’t focus the way you need to when you are connected, regardless of what you may believe.
- Focus on something intellectual while you are disconnected – If you spend all your disconnected time watching mindless reality shows, you really aren’t accomplishing anything. Yes you need down time and relaxation time, but I’m suggesting you also need thinking time. TV is somewhat passive so it’s not my first choice, but there is quality content if you look for it. Documentaries, history, biographies, nature, and science shows are all excellent choices.
- Read books – Reading rates for pleasure are dropping rapidly. Even more frightening is that much of the time spent reading is also spent multi-tasking with other media like watching TV or texting. This is especially true among children. Reading paper books or electronic books on something like a Kindle in a quiet place away from your computer allows you to concentrate in a way that’s nearly impossible online. If you are using other media or skimming and hopping around online you simple can’t get lost in your thoughts or in a story. If you are in a noisy environment put on headphones and listen to white noise such as pleasing rain sounds.
- Read non-fiction part of the time – I read mostly non-fiction. You don’t have to read books on theoretical physics, but try to read books that make you think.
- Read in moderate stretches of time – I will sometimes read for hours at a time. That’s probably a mistake because your brain needs time to consolidate what you are reading. There is some evidence that you should take short breaks about every 30 minutes. But you can’t get lost in thought or into the flow of what you are reading if you read in 5 minutes stretches.
- Spend time in reflective thought – This is probably by far the toughest for most people. I know it is for me. I have a difficult time doing it in a chair so I usually combine it with a walk in a pleasing, at least partially natural environment.
- Rest and Renew – learning requires renewal time. Time for your brain to reload and to consolidate and integrate what you are absorbing into long-term memory. Sleep is critical to this process so get plenty of it. But even beyond sleep, activities like a quiet walk in a park have been shown to increase subsequent mental performance.
“But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as we all become “pancake people”—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” — Richard Foreman
I don’t want to be a pancake. What about you?
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