Prepared by Michael Marien, Director, Global Foresight Books
Author of "Is Google Making Us Stupid” (The Atlantic, July 2008) and The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (W. W. Norton, Jan 2008/278p/$25.95), on expansion of the World Wide Computer and possible negative effects such as extremism and social fragmentation, cites Marshall McLuhan’s “medium is the message” phrase, recognizing that when a new medium comes along, people get caught up in the information it carries. [In Carr’s view, McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), is “more talked about than read. Today it has become a cultural relic”.] New media enthusiasts praise the torrent of new content that the technology uncorks and see it as “democratization” of culture, while skeptics condemn the crassness of the content, viewing it as a “dumbing down” of culture. “The Internet is the latest medium to spur this debate,” with enthusiasts and skeptics as polarized as ever. But what both miss is “what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.” It molds what we see and how we see it, and eventually it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society. But not even McLuhan could have foreseen the movable feast that the Internet has laid before us. “The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.”
Internet Pros and Cons
“The Web’s been a godsend to me as a writer.” Research that once required days can now be done in minutes, and the perfect recall of silicon memory can be an enormous boon to thinking. But it comes at a price: what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Others feel the same: the more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of serious writing. Some think that reading lots of short, linked snippets online is a more efficient way to expand the mind, but many others can’t read whole books anymore. “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.” The rational mind of the Enlightenment and the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution may soon be yesterday’s mind.
As brain science continues to advance, the evidence for plasticity strengthens, and many studies are cited. The adult brain is not only plastic, but “massively plastic,” according to one researcher at the U of Wisconsin. Another researcher at George Mason U says that “the brain has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly.” But the paradox of neuroplasticity is that, for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can lock us into rigid behaviors, bad habits, and mental afflictions.
Shift from Paper to Screen
Internet traffic has doubled, on average, every year since the Web was invented. By 2009, adults in North America spent an average of 12 hours online per week, double the average in 2005. Younger adults in their twenties spend >19 hours a week online, and American children between ages 2 and 11 used the Net about 11 hours a week in 2009. This does not include the time people spend using cellphones and other handheld computers, which also is increasing rapidly. In early 2009, the average US cellphone user sent or received nearly 400 texts a month, up more than four times from 2006. The average American teen sent or received 2,272 texts a month. There seems to be a huge overlap between TV viewing and Web surfing; “what seems to be decreasing as Net use grows is time spent reading newspapers, magazines, and books.”
Hyperlinks don’t just point us to related works, but propel us toward them, encouraging us to dip in and out of a series of texts. As with links, the ease of searching makes it much simpler to jump between digital documents than between printed ones. Our attachment to any one text becomes more tenuous and provisional. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.” And, by combining many different kinds of information, the multimedia Net further fragments content and disrupts our concentration. As sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow terms it, when we turn on our computer we are plunged into an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.”
“Our use of the Net will only grow, and its impact on us will only strengthen, as it becomes ever more present in our lives.” As it expands, other media contract, and one can see signs everywhere of “the Net’s growing hegemony over the packaging and flow of information.” As minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Web content, media companies chop up their products to fit the shorter attention spans of online consumers, and many magazines have tweaked their layouts to mimic the look and feel of jumbled Web sites. Books will not remain exempt from the digital media revolution, and sales of digital readers are booming (from 1 million units in 2008 to some 5 million in 2009). But electronic text is impermanent, and publication becomes an ongoing process rather than a discrete event. “It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitudes toward their work. The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed.” The practice of deep reading will continue to fade, becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite that might be called “the reading class.” But arguing that books are archaic allows people “to slip comfortably into the permanent state of distractedness that defines the online life.” The ethic of the book encouraged single-minded concentration; rather, “we have cast our lot with the juggler.”
The Juggler’s Brain
Dozens of studies point to the same conclusion: “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” One can think deeply by surfing the Net or shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards. “With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book.” The Internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term effect it that it seizes our attention only to scatter it. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains shallow. As we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. We become mindless consumers of data. Moreover, most Web pages are viewed for 10 seconds or less. Fewer than 1 in 10 page views extend beyond two minutes. “As users ‘power brouse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins, it almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.” The ability to skim is as important as the ability to read deeply: “what is different, and troubling, is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading.” In a metaphorical sense, we are reversing the early trajectory of civilization, becoming “hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.” As McLuhan pointed out, an honest appraisal of any new technology requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained. “We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self.”
The Shallows is an important book, well-researched and eloquently written. The message can be easily pooh-poohed or watered down. A well-known West Coast futurist suggested that “multi-tasking may be more human” than meditative thinking. The review in The Economist (26 June 2010, p88) says that “similar concerns have accompanied each new technology. Something is always lost and something gained.” In The New York Times Book Review (6 June 2010, p22), Jonah Lehrer also writes that “every technology comes with trade-offs,” and that “there is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brains… (but) the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind.” The key question, requiring serious and sustaiined debate, is whether the trade-offs are roughly equal, or whether the something lost is far more than the something gained.
GlobalForesightBooks.org offers a qualified mea culpa. Listing many hundreds of books in many overlapping categories (“short, linked snippets”) does indeed encourages horizontal skimming, but only to impress that there are many good books to choose from, to enable deep readers to choose wisely, and to underscore the pressing need for in-depth sectoral and issue-area surveys to stay abreast of and to analyze the burgeoning literature of current affairs.