What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains: Is Google Making Us Stupid?
by Nicholas Carr

Thesis: As the Internet becomes our primary source of information, it is affecting our ability to read books and other long narratives. This process of rewiring our brains carries the danger of flattening human experience even as it offers the benefits of knowledge efficiency and immediacy.

 

1) The author begins the article with a description of the closing scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when Dave dismantles the memory circuits of Hal, the artificial brain that controls the space ship.
2) The author feels that someone has been tinkering with his brain, making it change.
  • He no longer enjoys reading a book of any length because he cannot sustain concentration on the book.
3) He feels that all the time he now spends online is affecting his abilities to concentrate.
  • He recognizes that the Internet has been a useful tool for him to search for information and communicate.
  • He notes that, unlike footnotes, links send you to the information rather than just refer to it.
3) The Internet has become a universal medium to access information.
  • He cites Wired magazine’s Clive Thompson who believes the Internet aids thinking.
  • The author feels the benefit, however, comes with a price.
  • He cites Marshall McLuhan who noted in the 1960s that media are not passive channels of information.
  • Media supplies the content of thought but also shape the process of thought.
  • The Internet seems to be affecting his ability to concentrate and contemplate.
  • His mind wants information to take in information the way the Internet distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.
  • Instead of being a diver in the sea of words, he sees himself as a guy on a Jet Ski.
4) Other people are having similar problems staying focused after using the Web.
  • Scott Karp, an online blogger, has stopped reading books despite being a literature major in college.
  • He thinks that the way he thinks has changed, not the way he reads.
5) Bruce Friedman, another blogger, agrees his ability to read long articles has been affected by the Web.
  • He describes his thinking as having a “staccato” quality because of scanning short passages of text on the Web.
6) The author notes that these anecdotes do not prove that the Web has had a negative effect on the mind and long-term studies have not yet been done.
  • A recent study at University College London, however, suggests there may be some basis to this view.
  • Its five-year study of online reading habits confirms the skimming aspect as users of an online library moved between sources quickly (fewer than two pages) and rarely returned to any source already visited.
  • Long articles were occasionally saved.
  • The study notes that readers “power browse” looking for relevant material out of the abundance of material available.
  • 7) The author notes that the amount of text on the Internet and the popularity of texting on cell phones may mean we are reading more today than before when television was the medium of choice.
  • But it is a different kind of reading which fosters a new sense of self.
  • Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, notes, “We are not only what we read; we are how we read.”
  • Wolf believes the style of reading on the Net puts efficiency and immediacy above all else and may weaken the capacity for deep reading that was fostered by the printing press which allowed for long works to be commonly available.
  • Reading online causes us to become “mere decoders of information” and the ability to interpret text remains disengaged.
8) Reading is not an instinctive skill the way learning a language is.
  • Reading well requires us to teach our minds to translate symbolic characters into the language we understand.
  • The media and technologies used to learn and practice reading shape the neural circuits of our brains.
  • Experiments suggest that readers of ideograms used in languages such as Chinese develop a different mental circuitry than readers whose language uses an alphabet.
  • These variations extend across many regions of the brain, including functions that govern memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli.
  • It is reasonable to assume that circuits woven by the use of the Net will be different from those woven by reading books and other printed matter.
9) Nietzsche bought a typewriter in 1882 to aid in writing as his vision failed.
10) The typewriter, however, had an effect on his writing.
  • His terse prose became even tighter, more telegraphic.
11) Nietzsche noted, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
  • German media scholar, Friedrich A. Kitter believes that Nietzsche’s style changed from “arguments to aphorisms.”
12) The human brain is very flexible and can be shaped in different ways.
  • It used to be believed that the approximately 100 billion neurons in our brains were largely fixed by the time of adulthood.
  • Brain researchers do not believe that is so.
  • Neuroscientist James Olds notes that nerve cells routine form new connections and discard old ones.
  • 13) Sociologist Daniel Bell believes that as we use “intellectual technologies,” the tools that extend mental rather than physical capacity, we take on the qualities of those technologies.
  • The mechanical clock which began to be commonly used in the 14th century provides an example of this process.
  • Lewis Mumford, the author of Technics and Civilization, describes how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.”
14) The clock helped to bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific human, but also took something away.
  • Computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation that the clocks created an “impoverished version” of the actual world as decisions when to eat, work, or sleep we decided by instruments instead of our senses.
15) Changes to metaphors used to explain ourselves to ourselves reflect the process of adapting to new intellectual technologies.
  • The clock led to thinking of the brain as operating “like clockwork.”
  • In the age of software, we think of the brain as a kind of computer.
  • The brain’s plasticity permits the adaptation to occur biologically as well.
16) The Internet will have a large impact on cognition in the future.
  • In 1836, mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer (which did not actual exist at the time) could be programmed to function like other information-processing devices.
  • The Internet today is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies: map, clock, printing press, typewriter, calculator, telephone, radio, and television.
17) When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image.
  • Hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital elements surround the content we are reading with other content.
  • An e-mail message may announce itself as we read the headlines of an online newspaper and thus diffuses our attention to what we are reading.
18) The Net’s influence extends beyond the computer screen.
  • As people become attuned to Internet media, traditional media has adapted to their audience’s new expectations.
  • Television programs have added text scrawls and pop-up ads, magazines and newspapers shorten articles and provide capsule summaries.
  • The New York Times introduced article abstracts to help readers sample the day’s news and avoid the “less efficient” method of turning pages.
  • Old media has to play by the new media rules.
19) Communication systems have a broader influence over our thoughts today than ever before.
  • Little has been done, however, to study how the Net is reprogramming us.
  • The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.
20) At the time Nietzsche began using a typewriter, Frederick Winslow Taylor, the author of The Principles of Scientific Management, began using a stopwatch at a steel plant in Philadelphia to improve efficiency.
  • By breaking a job down to a sequence of discrete steps, Taylor created a precise set of instructions (an algorithm) for how each worker should work.
  • The factory’s production increased significantly although the workers objected to the role they now played.
21) The author sees Taylor as the philosopher of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Taylor’s “system” was copied around the world.
  • Taylor believed his system provided “the gradual substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.”
  • Taylor believed his system would restructure society as well as industry.
  • Taylor wrote, “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”
22) Taylor’s system is still used today and remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing.
  • Taylor’s system is beginning to govern the mind as well because of the power of computer engineers over our intellectual lives.
  • The author notes that the Internet is a machine designed for the efficient collection, transmission, and manipulation of information.
  • The Net’s designers are searching for the perfect algorithm to perform “knowledge work.”
23) Google’s headquarters (Googleplex) in California is the Internet’s high church and its religion is Taylorism.
  • Google executive Eric Schmidt says Google is founded “around the science of measurement” and strives to “systematize everything” it does.
  • Google carries out thousands of experiments a day using on all the behavioural data it collects through search engines.
  • It uses its results to refine algorithms that control how people find information and extract meaning from it.
  • What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.
24) Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
  • It seeks to create the perfect search engine that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”
  • Google views information as a commodity that can be manipulated to make us more productive as thinkers.
25) The author wonders: Where does it end?
  • The founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, are striving to turn the search engine into an artificial intelligence that might be directly connected to our brains.
26) The ambition of the Google founders is perhaps an admirable one, as they seek to solve problems not solved before.
27) The author wonders, however, whether the assumption that supplementing our brains with artificial intelligence will make humans “better off.”
  • This suggests that intelligence is the product of a mechanical process as producing a widget is in Taylor’s.
  • In Google’s world, the Net, there is little room for contemplation.
  • Ambiguity is seen as a problem to fix rather than an opening for insight.
28) The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines underlies the structure of the Net and is the Net’s basic business model.
  • The faster we surf the Net, the more opportunities Google and other companies have to collect information about us and to provide advertisements.
  • The last thing Internet companies want to encourage is leisurely reading or slow concentrated thought.
29) The author wonders if he is worrying about nothing as he might just be satisfying the desire to offset the tendency to glorify new technology by finding a flaw in it.
  • He refers to Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates bemoans the development of writing because the written word would become the substitute for memory and people would think themselves knowledgeable despite having received knowledge they were unprepared to understand.
30) The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century also had its detractors.
  • Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that intellectual laziness would result if books were readily available.
  • Others worried about the social implications of books as they might weaken religious authority and spread unrest.
  • Professor Clay Shirky notes that most of the concerns about the negative impact of books have proven to be true.
  • The author notes, however, that books have also had a positive impact.
31) The author suggests that we should be sceptical of scepticism.
  • Perhaps people who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites will be proven correct and a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom will follow.
  • But the Net isn’t just replacing the printing press because it is producing something very different.
  • Deep reading that occurs when we read a sequence of printed pages is valuable not only for the knowledge acquired but for the intellectual vibrations the words set off in our minds.
  • In the quiet space created through reading, we form our own associations, foster our own ideas.
  • Maryanne Wolfe believes that deep reading is the same as deep thinking.
32) If those quiet spaces are filled with “content,” we will lose something very important to our selves and our culture.
  • Playwright Richard Foreman describes what is at stake: I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] 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.”
33) Foreman fears we are turning into “pancake people” who are spread wide and thin rather than people who have an “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance.”
34) The author says he is haunted by the closing scene in the movie 2001.
  • It’s the computer’s emotional response to being disassembled, its childlike pleading: “I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid.”
  • Hal’s feeling is contrasted with the robotic efficiency of the humans who are turning off the Hal’s circuits.
  • In the world of 2001, the most human character is the machine.
  • Kubrick’s dark prophecy is that as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, our own intelligence flattens into artificial intelligence.

 

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