What impact is the internet having on how we think?
I just finished reading Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows – how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember’.
Carr provides lots of historical and scientific background material – all of which I found relevant and stimulating. In many respects I found myself identifying closely with Carr’s own experience – wondering what impact my increasing involvement with the online world is having on me. I am also trying to understand the threats and opportunities for my kids as they grow up in this web centric world.
I suppose the first theme is Carr setting out to substantiate his theory that the mind is impacted by the tools we use. He refers to its ‘plasticity’. He quotes a range of authorities (and experimental evidence) to support this. And I found this conclusive.
He also takes us back as far as Socrates and his concerns as to the impact on the mind of writing down details of events – the potential negative impact on mind/ memory.
I was most struck by the discussion about memory and how the mind commits detail to ‘long term’ memory. Carr talks about the current processing and the long term storage. In particular he focused on the importance of focus/ concentration when reading – the impact on the ability of the mind to process and store information being related to this ability to concentrate (and, it would seem, the impact of your immediate surrounds e.g. quite rural v. busy metropolitan). In this context it is interesting to compare the online, hypertext enhanced, web experience with reading a book. The web experience is immediately more attractive (and vastly more distracting). Generally the online experience is accompanied by interruptions from social networks, email, instant messaging, text on the side of pages, etc. Reading a book, as I have just done, in a quiet room, with no online distraction, is quite different.
I would not suggest that reading a book in a quiet room is without distractions. As a consultant, reading a book such as ‘Shallows’ I find myself inevitably thinking about recent experiences in client situations, current client issues and, more generally, other books/ materials I have read on related subjects. Carr references some of this in an interesting observation on the difference between computer memory and human memory. At different stages we recall detail from long terms memory to current memory, associate it/ correlate it with current memory content and eventually, depending on quality of our experience, may restore it in an enhanced way in long term memory. And we would describe this as a richer memory storage than any we may ‘outsource’ to computer memory.
Carr admits he has not changed much in his own behaviour. While writing the book he withdrew from much of his online interactivity. He readily admits to his own ‘withdrawal’ symptoms during this period. Having completed the book he returned to the web. He also acknowledges that for many working in this web centric world they have little choice but to participate actively. However none of this is to undermine his analysis – there is a real need to distinguish between genuinely human thinking and memory and that which is driven/ influenced by search engines, social networks and online content. Fail to make time for quality, offline, reading/ research/ contemplation at your peril.
I would very much like to see a discussion of Carr’s book incorporated into secondary school education – if there is an appropriate subject/ class in which to discuss it.