Friday, June 13, 2008


Is Google making us stupid? Nicholas Carr wonders if the Internet isn't actually rewiring our brains after finding that he can't follow very long prose anymore. Just no patience.

"And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles...

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?”

Of course, all technologies rewire our brains. I actually find that my mind doesn't really wander very well when I'm online- I'm not sure why. It's more like driving than reading a book for me in that sense- it requires more concentration. As soon as I get offline, I feel a sense of relief as my thoughts go back to wandering on their own without any of them being filled in by the computer.

But to suggest that people, like me, who use the net often are losing our ability to concentrate and hold a train of thought?

Well, that's absurd! I mean, obviously, the thing we have to remember here is that


narrator said...

I'm always entertained by this train of thought. Didn't Socrates claim that literacy would ruin human memory? I have an 1842 journal article that faces concerns that if the chalkboard in a classroom is too large it will contain too much information and distract the students. Of course "dime novels" (in the 1880s) and paperbacks (in the 1940s) would destroy concentration, as would radio, film, television...

I think people are scared of technological change. I think especially that people who have succeeded under old paradigms worry that they may not be so special under the new.

I also think human attention is multifaceted and multi-engaged as a natural state. That's a shock to those who work in classrooms, I know. But I still think it is true.

rufus said...

Well, the article actually gives those historical examples. And the guy is talking about his own brain after all. I mean, there's a difference between saying, "This coming technology will destroy our ability to concentrate!" and saying, "This nearly two-decade old technology that I've been using avidly for years now seems to have damaged my ability to concentrate." It's more like buyer's remorse than future shock.

I'm not sure what you mean by the last paragraph either. I work in a classroom, but that's not particularly shocking to me. I find that my own brain runs as 3-5 continuous and simultaneous tracks all working on different things, so multifaceted and multi-engaged is probably a good way to describe it.

But, I would also say that I notice the tracks starting up after I get offline, sometimes immediately. I don't think my attention is multifaceted or multi-engaged when surfing the net, and I'm not really sure why. It's like I go down to one track when I'm on the net. Actually, it's kind of a relief.

I don't mean any of this to sound like techno-paranoia- to be honest, I'm not sure I really care about other people's brains or if they can concentrate. (Maybe I should, but it seems invasive) And I'm definitely not concerned with the state of society and its paradigms.

However, as someone who spends too much time online, I have to wonder why my brain is decidedly more active when I'm sitting in the park doing absolutely nothing than when I'm surfing the net, which is, after all, reading and communicating.

Holly said...

Hmm, seems like there might be a little disconnect here. Mental multi-tasking strikes me as a FAILURE of concentration, while being wholly engaged with one task is more or less the definition of concentration.

So.... if you're doing just one thing (on the interwebs) and then when you stop doing that thing, and your brain shoots off in 5 directions at once.... ?

But, that's you. Personally, I never have less than 5 different web sites open when I'm on the internet, and I tend to carry information from one to the other. But when I read a book, the building could be burning down, and I might not notice before I got to the chapter break.

Point being: Not sure everyone reacts the same way. What I suspect is going on is that the internet is like a fire hose of data that you can drink from. Different people will have different responses to that, depending on their own native brain habitat, and awareness thereof.

Rufus said...

Okay, I think the problem is that there are two things going on here: one is that the article that we're talking about deals with a fellow who thinks that he is losing his ability to concentrate for long periods of time after using the internet, and the other is that I think that my attention is less active and more receptive while online. Probably the disconnect is that I'm talking about something different from the article, while still trying to discuss the artle. Maybe that's mental multitasking again.

And maybe what I'm describing is just normal contemplation. For me, I will wake up and the first thing I will think of is Claire. Then, being a nurd, I will briefly review the second Latin declension, and then go take a shower. Now, I am mulling over my relationship with Claire and Latin (often comparing it to Greek, which I just started) while paying some attention to taking a shower. Probably not much. And then something will remind me of Prometheus Rising, say, and I will start going over that and responding to it in my mind. When I get to the archives, I will start reading about the Greek war of independence from the sources. Now, I'm humming along with four things going at once and, hence, I don't really get bored very often. This is probably why I can sit and read a book all day. So, when Ira says that attention is naturally multifaceted and multi-engaged, I definitely agree with that.

With the Internet, I'm not saying that I study it like a monk doing exegesis; I often have four or five windows open too. But, I'm recieving information from all of them, and passively, so the active contemplation doesn't kick in for me. Oh, maybe I respond to things, but I don't really mull them over while online. For example, to even write this response, I had to leave the computer and walk around. When I read a book, all the tracks are still going, including of course a book track, and they're often playing off each other, so it's still fairly active. With the computer, I'm just recieving all this information at once and basically waiting to mull it over later. I find it to be considerably more passive, or maybe just distracting.

But, I should say that, for me, what the guy is talking about- an inability to pay attention to a book for very long, really isn't something I've noticed. Once I'm off-line, reading a text is no problem. And, when offline, following a train of thought wherever it leads is definitely not a problem for me, but it sounds like it is for him. For me, the problems are more quotidian, such as if I'm walking to the archives thinking of Latin, Greek, Claire, Schopenhauer, and introductory biology, sometimes I will forget things like looking both ways before crossing the street.

narrator said...

OK, I do need to re-read, but the idea of "attention" - of "concentration" as Holly describes it - is a fascinating construct. Maria Montessori (et al) wrote extensively about this (what they called "gaze") back at the turn of the last century (there's a great article written by a friend of a friend which looks at the famous "glass classroom" at the Pan-Pacific Exhibition this way, I'll dig for a link). Because the whole idea of "paying attention" is an institutional construct.

In my experience it is highly individualized yet rarely treated as such. Right now, for example, I am typing this, the TV is on and I know what's happening there. The girlfriend is drying her hair (and I know that), the cat wants me to open the window, I'm considering my route to the art fair we're headed off to, and I'm counting the hours until things need to be handed to my committee on Wednesday. But that's me. I'm still functioning here. Others are different.

I think this is why, when we think of "students" - we need to help them find their way to "comfort" regarding attention, rather than suggesting there is a "way" of paying attention.

But I wasn't talking about "you" in the classroom, but about the faculty (on Inside Higher Ed for example) who constantly bemoan the fact that "kids aren't focused on me."

Anyway, I'm off to focus on other things...

Rufus said...

Right, well I would totally agree with that. When I'm teaching, I'm not remotely concerned with whether or not the students look like they're paying attention to me so long as they're not actually doing something distracting for others. And I think the main reason for that is that I've gone my entire life having people tell me that I seemed like I wasn't paying attention to them when I was. And actually many people absorb information better when they're doing other things- I'm sure you've seen the student who sketches throughout the class but who gets As on the exams. I don't have any problem with them.

Also, to be honest, I feel that teachers can choose to either place their emphasis on the students or on the material, and that placing your emphasis on the students and what's going on with them in every lesson is just a way to ruin your own mental health.

Now, another thing occurred to me while I was walking through the Nantes market- it's possible to go to the other extreme from hysteria. For instance, automobiles have obviously altered our lives, and mostly for the better. I would assume though that you can find people from the 1930s who said that automobiles would destroy our ability to walk in the future. And I would agree that this would be ridiculous- just as I would agree that people who say that "the internet is coming and we're all going to forget how to think on our own!" are overstating their case.

However... the extreme response to that would be to laugh and say that we know that the car paranoids were wrong because obviously it's totally unimaginable that there could be people today who are fat and out of shape because they drive everywhere. Do you see what I'm saying? The anti-net people might be extreme, but that doesn't mean that surfing the net is totally neutral. I've found that I really need to place limits on my time on the thing and force myself off-line. And I think there definitely are a good number of internet addicts out there. I suspect that old technology professors who are alarmed to find themselves teaching a certain number of internet-addicts each semester aren't necessarily overreacting because they're personally threatened.

Does that mean that we should ban the internet from all public places, say? No, probably not. Does it mean that we should "just say no" to the net? No. But I do think that we need to be more reflective about how we use technology and not see it as a simple pro or anti issue. I think that's what the fellow was trying to do. While I definitely don't have the same problems that he has- I'm still reading like crazy!- I do think it's good for people who have those issues to consider how they use the net.

narrator said...

I've always loved the "Spencer Tracy" speech on change in Inherit the Wind. Because it is never neutral. Obviously for all the benefits, automobiles have also been a disaster. Even increased medical (higher survival rates) can create negatives of population pressures. So I think reflecting on changes, considering how to function best with new tools, is essential. Most of the problems which came with the automobile came because of a lack of planning and consideration.

We were just talking Thursday about vanishing languages. A friend on the Isle of Man said, "we survived Gutenberg [that is, Manx did], but I'm not sure we can survive the internet." And, as I've said, Gutenberg destroyed half the languages of Europe, but... and if we see that question we might ask, what lessons might we learn from that?

So one of my favourite debating partners on this issue is Michael Bugeja of Iowa State who is "Mr. Anti-Technology." Except, of course, he is not. He asks about who owns things, who controls things, what can we tell from the past, how should we be deliberate about the future. After all, we might be able to draw a direct line from corporate media conglomeration in the US to the Iraq War (from Katie Couric's "Navy Seals Rock!" to the NYTimes Judith Miller). Would a more diverse press have ridden to the rescue? And we can surely draw a direct line from the development of internet social networking to Barack Obama being nominated. So these things really do matter.