Should We Worry?

How is the internet changing us?  Is digital technology undermining our ability to think?  To concentrate?  To be creative?  To be ourselves?

As a species, we are immensely adaptive.  It’s our genius.  Aided by large brains and by our capacity for consciousness, we have been capable of great flexibility.  Receiving and storing vast quantities of information, we are constantly adjusting to change – usually without even being aware of it.

Recently, Nicholas Carr has argued that this very “plasticity” is degrading our capacity to think.  As we adapt to the constant interruptions of the internet, our capacity for sustained concentration erodes.  Surfing on the net and multi-tasking compounds the problem.  He argues that we adapted to books 500 years ago after the invention of the printing press, and our capacity for “deep reading” led to great advances in our culture’s development.  But now, as we adapt to computers and broadband connectivity, we are losing much of what we gained.  (See his book, The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.)

His argument gains credibility from recent neuroscience discoveries showing that the brain is extraordinarily more plastic and adaptable that we had ever thought.  With proper training, one part of the brain can take over the functions of another.  (See, for example, Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself.)  This is great news for stroke victims, but more alarming for those of us more worried about losing the hard won gains of civilization.  If we use our minds in the shallow way the internet encourages us to, we will lose our capacity for deeper thought.

No doubt we are continuing to adapt to the internet, to computers and cell phones, as we adapted to radio and TV, steamships and airplanes.

Electric light made it possible to work 24 hours a day, and that, in turn, dislocated long-standing bio-rhythms.  Will hard drives make long-term memory obsolete?  Will google degrade our capacity for reflection?

Carr’s book is alarmist, filled with anecdotal material about how authors have stopped reading and students stopped thinking.  But, frankly, while it is no doubt true that our brains are rapidly adapting to the digital world, there are fundamental differences between computers and brains.  Computers – and cell phones, and TV’s, and iPods, and all the rest — process information.  Our brains process experience.  Brains are part of our bodies, and have multiple channels of input.  They are constantly synthesizing and reintegrating new sense data and memories with schemas of reaction and response, each time differently.  As a result they don’t easily meld with the invariant programs of computers.  Brains are not tools. They are minds of their own.

Yes, we can all form bad habits of unreflective surfing.  We can get addicted to internet porn, or caught up in the pursuit of more “friends” than we know what to do with.  But our experience will be mediated and moderated by our bodies, and they have many more agendas than we can possibly know – and usually we are not conscious of what they are.  It would not be as easy as Carr fears to override them all.

It’s not yet time to be alarmed.