Tue, May 4 2010 4:47 PM William Green

What is the internet doing to our minds?

Some think the internet is harming our ability to think and read deeply.  For example, Nicholas Carr wrote in 2008:

The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Carr went on with anecdotes of folks who can't read books anymore and blame the internet's affect on their ability (or desire?) to concentrate.  He also pointed to a study of the research habits of "virtual library" users suggests such research is dominated by "horizontal information seeking", where "people view just one or two pages from an academic site and then `bounce’ out, perhaps never to return. The figures are instructive: around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never return."

There is no doubt the potential exits for such changes, and the ease of information gathering that the internet provides may facilitate this kind of superficial research (actually I think it is the explosion of the volume of information that has caused this--we simply can't fully process it all), but the internet does not cause the problem any more than having snacks in the house makes you fat.  We don't need to be a "mile wide and an inch deep".

I skimmed journal articles and abstracts in my thesis research, only reading deeply the most pertinent articles.  The difference is I no longer have to waste as much time "wandering the stacks".  It takes self-discipline to sit down and read a good book or scholarly article, but the internet does not prevent that.  In fact, it makes such books and articles much more accessible.

I am more interested in the possible effect on memory.  Is our memory becoming "external"?  I am reading Dan Simmons sci-fi classic, Hyperion, and I was struck yesterday by something M. Silenus said:

The datasphere was a constant delight that first year - I called up information almost continuously, living in a frenzy of full interface.  I was... addicted to raw data...  I could imagine Don Balthazar spinning in his molten grave as a I gave up long term memory for the transient satisfaction of implant omniscience.  It was only later that I felt the loss--Fitzgerald's Odyssey, Wu's Final March and a score of other epics which had survived my stroke now were shredded like cloud fragments in a high wind.  Much later, freed of implants, I painstakingly learned them all again.

Is it possible that we could rely too much on information stored on the internet, that this could somehow be harmful?  I am not sure.  It seems possible.  We no longer need to memorize things, knowing that they are always just a click away.  I suppose on the one hand this may be a good thing.  If our brains become used less for storage and become primarily processors of information, maybe this will enable us to process more information more quickly.  Maybe we will become more efficient in progressing intellectually and technologically.  But could it be a bad thing?  Are there disadvantages to external memory?

One obvious disadvantage is that we may not always have access to this external memory, either because we are away from a computer or there is a power outage or whatever.  But is there another, deeper, disadvantage?  I don't know, but I doubt it.  It seems to me that the location of the information should not really matter, except for its logistical impacts.   Why should internal memory be important?

I am somewhat concerned with these ease with which digital information can be manipulated and changed.  The Ministry of Information will have a much easier time retroactively changing history in our digital age.  Even classic books could conceivably be changed in a totally digital environment.  But these are practical issues, not related to fundamental thinking skills or the working of our minds.

It seems to me that thinking skills need not be harmed by the Web.  In fact, with our minds as processors, the internet would seem only to expand our horizons. 

What do you think?

Filed under: , , , ,