Last week the flurry of information pelted at us by the internet reached a new intensity.
Google Instant was launched as a new development of the popular search engine that predicts your query even as you type it; flicking through pages of results before you have finished a single word.
It’s undoubtedly an amazing piece of technology, which takes its place among a seemingly endless succession of innovations turbo-charging the medium.
But somewhere beyond the hubbub of excitement surrounding the ever increasing number of blogs, social networks, newsfeeds and websites we flit between is a questioning voice asking: what effect is this tornado of information having on our brains?
“I became aware of changes in my own thinking a couple of years ago,” Nicholas Carr, author of new book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains”.
“Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time using the net and other digital technologies over the past ten or fifteen years, and I’ve enjoyed the many benefits those technologies provide.
“But I came to realize, some time in 2007, that I was losing my ability to pay deep attention to one thing over a long period of time. When I’d sit down to read a book, for instance, I was only able to sustain my concentration for a page or two. My mind would begin to crave stimulation and distraction — it wanted to click on links, jump from page to page, check email, do some Googling.
“The habits of mind the net encouraged had become my dominant habits of mind. That’s when I began to do the research that led to the writing of ‘The Shallows’.”
While writing the book he came across a body of academic research that backed up his hunch, and the argument at the heart of “The Shallows” is that that the changes Carr felt in his own mind are happening much more broadly throughout society.
Earlier this week Baroness Greenfield, the Oxford University researcher and former head of the UK’s Royal Institution, called on the British government and private companies to investigate the effects on our brains of computer games, the internet and social networking.
“We should acknowledge that it is bringing an unprecedented change in our lives and we have to work out whether it is for good or bad,” she told reporters.
“For me, this is almost as important as climate change. Whilst of course it doesn’t threaten the existence of the planet like climate change, I think the quality of our existence is threatened and the kind of people we might be in the future.”
Greenfield calls the effect of too much time in front of a computer as “mind change”. Carr goes further in his analysis and talks about how the way we think is shaped by the tools we use to think with.
“This was true of the map, the alphabet, the clock, and the printing press, and it’s true as well of the internet. The net encourages the mental skills associated with the rapid gathering of small bits of information from many sources, but it discourages the kind of deeply attentive thinking that leads to the building of knowledge, conceptual thinking, reflection, and contemplativeness.
“So, as with earlier intellectual technologies, the net strengthens certain cognitive functions but weakens others. And because the neural pathways in our brain adapt readily to experience, the changes occur in the actual cellular wiring of our brains.”
Some of these arguments may have a familiar ring — those old enough may recall similar fears about television; the belief that media will rot our brains is not new, but Carr argues this time it is different.
“As a multimedia system, the ‘net is different from TV and radio, and certainly from the printed page, and needs to be evaluated on its own terms,” he says.
“The reason that alterations in our habits of mind matter is because they determine the scope and richness of our intellectual lives and also affect the depth of our culture.”
So should we be worried?
“It depends on what you value about the human mind,” says Carr.
“Some people love the constant stimulation the net provides, and don’t much care about the loss of more solitary, contemplative ways of thinking. For them, it’s not a problem at all.
“Other people — and I’m one of them — believe that while it’s important to be able to skim and scan and multitask, our deepest and most valuable thinking requires a calm and attentive mind. If you exist in a perpetual state of distractedness, you’ll never tap into the deepest sources of human insight and creativity.”
With the multiplication of smartphones, netbooks, and social networking services ratcheting up the intensity of the interruptions that bombard us, Carr believes that these changes will continue to accelerate. As the internet is woven ever more deeply into our work lives, social lives, and education we need to start thinking about where all this is leading, now.
“I fear that we have been too quick to assume that computers and the ‘net are good for students,” he says.
“Certainly kids need to learn how to use the net effectively, but I think they also need to be encouraged to read printed books, to learn to pay attention, and to engage in solitary and contemplative thought. If kids are distracted all day long, in and out of school, they may never learn to think deeply. But there may be a way to have our cake and eat it when it comes to connectivity.
Ignoring the irony of using software to solve a problem created by software, there are several packages now available that lock you out of the internet and all its distractions for a specified period of time — letting you focus on work, rather than disappearing down the rabbit hole of Google and Wikipedia.