Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Internet Is Making You Stupid

Fine, the Internet is useful. It's also a huge waste of time and is making you stupid, so I dare you to read this whole post. In other words, I just read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr is sometimes credited with starting this discussion with his article "Is Google Making You Stupid?" in The Atlantic a few years ago. The book goes into detail about how the brain is plastic (adaptable) into adulthood, and how using the Internet re-wires your neurons so that you're better at skimming than concentrating or thinking deeply. (When was the last time you made it through an entire NYT Sunday Magazine article online?) Carr cites numerous scientific studies showing that the distracting nature of hypertext and multimedia lead to lower retention and comprehension. These parts of the book are very interesting, just like any Malcom Gladwell-esque collection of interesting scientific findings.

The book is also part intellectual history, which was far less interesting to me. From Plato to Nietzsche and from the invention of paper to moveable type, all these thinkers had ideas about how technology affected man, and all these new inventions changed the way the brain works. It so obvious I can't even call it ironic, but I found myself skimming some of these chapters (thankfully, only chapters 3 and 4). A very interesting chapter covered Google, and Carr quotes writer Richard Komen regarding Google's book-scanning projects as saying Google "has become a true believer in its own goodness, a belief which justifies its own set of rules regarding corporate ethics, anti-competition, customer service, and its place in society." I was on board for Google Book Search, but since they recently sold out net-neutrality and left Al Franken and netroots the only things between Verizon and prioritized wireless Internet traffic, I'm reconsidering. One large company's ethics isn't necessarily a harbinger of doom, but it is evidence that flashy blinking lights are indeed coming to dumb down more and more aspects of your life.

My major beef with this book is that there is absolutely nothing in terms of solutions. Other than a three-page digression of a chapter about Carr's own terminating his twitter account while writing the book (but then buying a Blu-Ray with built-in wifi), there is literally nothing on practical measures one could take to avoid checking your e-mail every minute and a half. While reading the book, the scientific studies cited often have control groups who are not allowed to bring laptops into lectures, or who have to walk in a park while treatment groups use laptops and walk in crowded cities. So obviously, one realizes through reading the book that one will probably learn more if one doesn't bring one's laptop to class, even though one won't be able to read relevant wikipedia articles, because one will be concentrating better. But that's it--there's nothing on practical tips or suggestions, which I would have found very useful. (Do any of you have practical suggestions?)

Still, I'd recommend the book. You could also read a recent series on called "Your Brain on Computers". I won't link to it because you'd be distracted and retain less of what I was trying to say. I'd also recommend another older book I read in college, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neal Postman. It's another one of those quotes-Marshall-McCluhan-a-lot-and-says-technology-is-making-us-dumb type of books, only it's about TV. (Seriously, who watches TV anymore? More importantly, who watches TV without surfing the Internet at the same time?)

Anyway, that's it. I'll probably rant more about the Internet and simplicity and stuff again next week, because I'm now I'm going to read Shop Class as Soulcraft.


  1. I realized recently I'm a victim of the Google. I skim over news headlines at work, and read a few paragraphs of the interesting articles. When I get home and sit down with a book, I find myself having to re-read sections because I was skimming them. Stupid brain.
    (I only read this whole post because you dared me to. Please don't dare me to run a 50k)

  2. Make a conscious effort to read things fully and follow it up with a comment to the author (if the option is available). I'm of the opinion that commenting forces us to contemplate what we've read and thereby reinforcing our brain to 'memorize' and mull over what we've read.

  3. Sam, the commenting idea seems pretty good. If I could self-enforce that well I'd probably have to read a lot few huffpo-type short worthless articles and instead read NYT magazine or similar full-length articles worthy of a comment.