mm424: I, for one, feel smarter every day…

MUDGE’s Musings

Spotted a couple of references (most recently and indirectly at Arts & Letters Daily) to a most thought-provoking article in the Atlantic Monthly by Nicholas Carr, regarding the perhaps crippling effect of Internet use on the intellect.


Is Google Making Us Stupid?

What the Internet is doing to our brains

by Nicholas Carr |  July/August 2008 Atlantic Monthly

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward 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.”

I can feel it, too. Over the past 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. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

So I’ve noticed through the years that my ability, or even interest, to focus for extended lengths of time on a book had diminished. I have attributed this mostly to the natural effects of my alacritously advancing age. But maybe there’s more going on.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

Carr goes on to point to researchers who are just beginning to take note of this phenomenon.

But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.”

And, on the Internet, how we read is definitely different. As Carr describes it, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

So this change in the way he thinks that Carr noted, and that I reluctantly need to acknowledge in myself, is not the first time it’s occurred in human history. The good news? Our brains are not locked down into fixed ways of doing business. The not so good news? Our ability to focus attention on any subject may have become undermined by the tsunami of data in which we daily willingly drown ourselves.

Carr quotes Marshall McLuhan, the influential media analyst of the sixties. Television viewing, of course, and probably radio listening before it, radically changed people’s daily habits and the ways they took in (and probably, processed) information, and McLuhan was on top of that. We’ve had a short attention span for news since the television age began. Not for nothing has the term “20-second sound bite” become an outcome, and thus a tactic in political campaigns.

Thus our cultural short attention span predates the Internet by nearly 50 years.

I’ve got a stack of seven or eight books in my “read soonest” pile, including Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, so eagerly awaited since our mutual friend touted it prepublication in early March.

It is just simply embarrassing to me that it took several months to read and return to a patient work colleague (“don’t worry, you’re the only one here I ever can speak to about history and politics, so there’s no next person on the borrowing list”) the borrowed The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam’s brilliant, last history of the Korean War.

In some ways, then, it is rather heartening to learn that I am not the only person who, long accustomed to voracious book reading, has changed habits in favor of Internet activity.

For one, this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere© itself is a tremendous, if psychically rewarding, time suck. Not only the writing, editing, and publishing, for which I devote considerable care and attention.

Also, it’s the daily pre-writing cruising among news and blogs and other ‘Net resources for inspiration and ideas. Not to mention the toiling in the vineyards of the various traffic building sites, BlogExplosion and FuelMyBlog and BlogCatalog and my newbie, BlogSoldiers.

Then there’s the simple recreational surfing that has generally replaced recreational television in my waking hours, as well as, guiltily the subject of today’s post, sitting in a plushly comfortable chair, as opposed to the more ascetic and business-like swivel chair in front of my PC, reading “legacy” books and publications.

So, my attention deficit is not necessarily due to physical changes caused by aging, although that may be part of it: I reluctantly acknowledge embarking on my seventh decade (let us be clear: I did not reluctantly embark — consider the alternative!) at the beginning of this year. Nicholas Carr, and the others he sought out for his article (and, I suppose, for his newly published book from which this material is most certainly drawn), think our brains are changing due to the way we take in information.

So be it.

Would I give up Google, Netvibes, Pageflakes, Yahoo! (well, I did long since, on merit), email (all six personal accounts!) and the rest of it?

Not a chance.

Will I embrace my newly acknowledged attention deficit? Without hesitation. I am a creature of the 21st Century Internet. I can find any arcane fact in mere seconds; I can view a 360° photograph of most any U.S. address; I can read the latest thoughts of a well-spoken mommy-blogger in Singapore; I can catch up instantly on the latest tragedy from Zimbabwe or Sichuan.

My world view may not have the depth of knowledge it might have had previously; but it is so very much the better for its magnificent breadth.

No, Google does not make me stupid. I think differently (thanks, Mr. Carr for helping me understand this), not less. Mr. Carr’s hardbound scuba diver covers a few hundred cubic feet of ocean; his and my Internet jet-ski navigates the planet.

I’ll happily take that trade-off.

It’s it for now. Thanks,


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2 Responses to mm424: I, for one, feel smarter every day…

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