Sunday, June 13, 2010

Battle of the brains...

I haven't actually read Nicholas Carr's new book yet - The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, but as far as I have heard in two interviews with the author, the book is an expansion on his 2008 article Is Google Making Us Stupid? - Magazine - The Atlantic? It explores the impact of recent information technology on our intellects. The reviews I have read stress that the book is non-polemic and balanced argument but that hasn't stopped others from getting their knickers twisted in a knot. Steven Pinker offered a short, worthwhile counter-argument in this week's New York Times. Yes, the brain has and will continue to evolve in relation to the media in which it is steeped. We certainly cannot stop that process. Is Carr just in mourning for the change he fears because his business is narrative? Is he Chicken Little or does he have a valid point? Brains are admittedly diverse in their ability to concentrate broadly versus deeply. That would be true with or without the internet. Most people are in the middle of the curve. At each extreme end of that continuum is a cognitive style that is the hallmark of a diagnosable condition - Attention Deficit Disorder is characterized by (among other things) an inability to sustain attention on one point for an extended period of time. On the other end are Autistic Spectrum Disorders which are characterized by (among other things) a cognitive style that gets involved more deeply in details than the gist of things, and those on the spectrum generally have a harder time shifting from one point of concentration to another. Each of those cognitive styles has its assets and liabilities. Your technology-addled brain is here reading my blog, but this is a bookish blog and therefore you probably also manage to concentrate on a fair bit of full-length narrative, so have you read Carr's book? Will you? Personal feelings are not study data but what do you think?

3 comments:

C.B. James said...

One could have made a very similar arguement when civilization developed writing. Prior to writing culture was oral. One had to sit and listen from beginning to end without skipping ahead a few pages. As a result everyone knew the entire story by heart.

Tellers of stories, keepers of information, had to memorize things word for word, and did so with remarkable accuracy. We know this from studies done on non-print cultures in the early 20th century. Many of them found that oral tradition was more accurate than written records.

A great deal was lost when civilization moved to written language.

I'm waiting for hard science at this point. I can't believe the internet has already changed the way we think. It may have changed the way we read and do research, but it's a bit early for evolutionary thinking to have changed. I think we're still the same bunch of gossipers gathering at the town cafe each morning to exchange rumors. We've just got this remarkably big town cafe now.

Ted said...

CB - Not only could people have made the same argument - they did! And there was, as you say, a cost incurred in terms of auditory memory - but there was a gain as well. As you wisely say, the data is not in yet.

Anonymous said...

As a longtime fan of Neil Postman, I was intrigued by Carr's thesis, so I bought the book and am well into it. I think he's on to something very significant. As an educator of 30 years, I have watched with great dismay while my students have degenerated from thinkers to what I call "data weavers." I have seen relational skills disintegrate to the point where students could write all night to keep their Facebook image current, but not know how to carry on a conversation with someone across the table from them. The recent Wisdom 2.0 conference in Silicon Valley is a quiet testimony that others are witnessing a diminishing of our humanity. Carr's title is very appropriate, I think.