Monday, August 16, 2010

Is The Times making you stupid?

On Saturday I made a horrible mistake and bought a copy of The Times. In it was one of the stupidest articles I have ever read in a major newspaper. Its title? Is the internet making us stupid?. It's thousands of words of utter drivel claiming that:

For the past five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the centre of art, science and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.

Let me begin with a detailed, thoughtful critique: bollocks. Seriously though, this 'linear mind' (which we apparently got from books) is the source of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution? Surely, it's a complete lack of linearity, as in lateral thinking, that's given us the world we live in.

But the article is far worse than that simple paragraph. Let's start at the beginning:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — as far as I can tell — but it’s changing.

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case any more. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as though I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

The author is Nicholas Carr. According to Wikipedia Mr Carr was born in 1959 and thus is now 51. Like me, Mr Carr is aging, unlike me Mr Carr seems to be blaming changes in the operation of his mind on the Internet. I understand this, it's a way of avoiding talking about death and deterioration. And Mr Carr has found a wonderful way of dealing with this denial: he's written an entire book shouting at the Internet. (The Times article is pre-publicity for his new book called The Shallows which develops the "Internet is messing up your brain" theme).

He follows up his personal problems with the following survey:

Maybe I’m an aberration. But it doesn’t seem that way. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends, many say that they are suffering from similar afflictions.

Great, that's what's called homophily. You surround yourself with people with the same opinions and tastes. His friends are also likely his age and starting to see the effects of aging as well.

After quoting various people who've noticed that the Internet is used differently from a book, we get the following, stunningly wrong insight:

The net engages all our senses — except, so far, those of smell and taste — and it engages them simultaneously.

This is where I begin to wonder if something has fried Mr Carr's brain's ability to think clearly. "The net engages all our senses" (of which we have 5), "except, so far, those of smell and taste" (so just 3 then). The three senses are: sight, hearing and touch. Yes, the Internet engages sight all the time, but hearing is only part of the time and touch... well I guess if you count the feeling of the mouse in my hand.

Compare that with TV which engages sight and hearing all the time and touch through the remote control.

But he continues:

The net commands our attention with far greater insistency than our television or radio or morning newspaper ever did. Watch a kid texting his friends or a college student looking over the roll of new messages and requests on her Facebook page or a businessman scrolling through his e-mails on his BlackBerry. What you see is a mind consumed by a medium.

No, that's what Mr Carr sees. I see a kid communicating with his friends (via text message which has nothing to do with the Internet), a college student doing what college students do (organizing her social life) and a businessman worrying about a deal, or office politics, or what the day will bring.

But don't stop him now:

When we’re online we’re often oblivious to everything else going on around us.

Just like when we get into a good book. Oh sorry, that negates the argument about the Internet killing the book. I'll shut up.

As the psychotherapist Michael Hausauer notes, teenagers and other young adults have a “terrific interest in knowing what’s going on in the lives of their peers, coupled with a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop.”

And? That's hardly new. Teenagers have been doing that forever. When I was growing up it was yacking for hours on the phone tying up the one line the family had.

The net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing our attention.

I don't even know what this means, but it sounds great. I guess he'll use this line over and over again to pump the book. The net (by which he means the web, I assume) is not an interruption system (by design). Go grab Tim Berners-Lee and ask him what he was designing at CERN. He was designing an environment for scientists to navigate one of the most difficult and rich areas of science: particle physics.

Websites routinely collect detailed data on visitor behaviour, and a 2008 study found that in most countries people spend, on average, between 19 and 27 seconds looking at a page before moving on.

Funny how he doesn't compare that to how long it takes to read a page in a book and how many words there are on a web page. He continues (and I'll stop quoting) about the dangers of multitasking. These dangers seem real to me, but they aren't the Internet's fault.

And then he finishes:

What the net diminishes is the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.

It's a horrible thought. But is it true? Mr Carr has failed to convince me, perhaps I'll have to buy his book.

UPDATE. In a comment below it's pointed out that the article in The Times is very, very similar to one that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Happily, that article is not behind a paywall. You can read it here.

UPDATE. A reader reminded me that Socrates was worried about the impact of written arguments many centuries ago. People have been wailing about technology spoiling everything for a long time.

19 comments:

Clive O'Riordan said...

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/ - he is selling his old work to The Times.

mydigitalself said...

You can probably pick holes in most editorial pieces, including those that appear on the web.

For example, I'll pick a big one in yours.

"The net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing our attention.

I don't even know what this means, but it sounds great. I guess he'll use this line over and over again to pump the book. The net (by which he means the web, I assume) is not an interruption system (by design). Go grab Tim Berners-Lee and ask him what he was designing at CERN. He was designing an environment for scientists to navigate one of the most difficult and rich areas of science: particle physics."

Tim (sorry) didn't invent or design the net, that was the web. The two are quite different. The web lives on top of the net. The net connects devices and allows them to communicate. So Mr Carr may have a point there. Email leverages the net, as does twitter, as does IM, as do push notifications, as does Skype. All of these technologies are constantly invading our attentive sphere.

I'm in my early 30's and have been heavily engaged with the net, in various forms, since I was 16. I've lived on email and IM for years. I get interrupted all the time and over the past few years I've noticed my attention span gradually receding.

There appears to be some suggestion in medical circles that the diagnosis of ADHD is on the rise, but the theories for the cause are at present inconclusive. It's no stretch, however, to consider that the amount of stimulus the net and it's surrounding technologies deliver to us that these could be a significant contributor.

benj_collier said...

Very good article J G-C.

NB:

"...author is Nicholas Carr. According to Wikipedia Mr Carr was both in 1959 and thus is now 51."

Should it be 'born' not 'both'?

Keep up the good work.

x

benj_collier said...

Very good article J G-C.

NB:

"...author is Nicholas Carr. According to Wikipedia Mr Carr was both in 1959 and thus is now 51."

Should it be 'born' not 'both'?

Keep up the good work.

x

PhilH said...

Good post. I would say that I do find having the Internet available all the time is a huge distraction though. Especially as what I do with my time is largely on computer.

If anything's messing with my brain it's the screen, though, not the content.

Manni said...

It's even worse than that: We have seven senses (at least). You forgot equilibrioception and haptic perception (which is not the same as touch).

There's a beautiful piece by German author Kathrin Passig about the 9 stages of technology aversion. Looks like Mr. Carr is now on stage 9.

Tom said...

@mydigitalself - "You can probably pick holes in most editorial pieces, including those that appear on the web." - no, this is not hole picking. This post is what is termed a 'refutal'.

"The net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing our attention" - this quote is, whoever 'designed' or 'invented' the net, a foolish and unreasoned attack. The net was designed to be an indestructible, endlessly expandable computer network. Saying otherwise is like saying that the hammer is "by design, a thumb bruising weapon, a device geared for bending nails".

ADHD is mostly bollocks. It sells a lot of pills, though.

Your attention span may well be affected by other external stimulae (drugs, alcohol, attractive people, self doubt, boredom, depression) - I've no idea.

jimjim said...

Wholeheartedly agree with this article, well said!

Sorry to be pedantic about it, but, shouldn't the sentence - "No, that's why Mr Carr sees" actually be - "No, that's what Mr Carr sees" ?

Ian said...

The website somethingawful.com has used the tagline "the internet makes you stupid" since at least 2001. The Times: doubly unoriginal

Orion Edwards said...

@mydigitalself:

I'm in my early 30's and have been heavily engaged with the net, in various forms, since I was 16. I've lived on email and IM for years. I get interrupted all the time and over the past few years I've noticed my attention span gradually receding.

If the internet was at fault, surely you would have noticed your attention span receding by the time you were, say, 19 or 20?

Or perhaps the obvious answer is more correct: You're simply getting older. Along with your attention span, I bet you can't drink as much, recover from excercise as fast, or make do with 3 hours of sleep any more either...
At least you have some wisdom to draw upon :-)

John Graham-Cumming said...

Thank you to everyone who has pointed out strange errors in my writing (why/what, born/both). I have always suffered from this problem and am grateful for your copy editing!

It is oddly related to the fact that I learnt to touchtype many years ago and for some reason I hear a word in my head and my brain tells my fingers to type some other similar word.

rox said...

I don't usually like conspiration theories, but lately I feel like the printed media is putting conscious effort into making the web look bad.

Last screams of an obsolete media...

DE said...

>It is oddly related to the fact that I >learnt to touchtype many years ago and >for some reason I hear a word in my head >and my brain tells my fingers to type >some other similar word.

That's the internet fucking up your fragile little mind. Or maybe not.

Sam said...

I think this snarky little takedown offers little in the way of substance--while I don't totally agree with shirky, I'm glad he's at leadt engaging with the question of whether our new media change how we think. You, instead, offer ad hominem attacks and nitpicky criticisms. God knows why hackernews upvoted this crap.

John Graham-Cumming said...

I don't believe he's 'engaging' anything, he's out to sell a book with a controversy.

rationalbeing said...

Absolutely loved your article. All the big shot publishers out there are afraid of Internet and thats the bottom line. They desperately want their monopoly back. Internet=Democracy=Freedom FTW

Artiqulate said...

As mentioned in this NYT article http://nyti.ms/cv1vt3, such lack of focus is actually good for creative lateral thinking or problem solving. I'm very glad I exhibit this feature at a young age.

Steve Rogers said...

People said the piano would make musicians stupid because it was a machine for playing a harp, too.

joseph said...

Mr. Graham-Cumming,

It is a low blow to strike a man who, as young as fifty, to be in denial of deterioration and aging when he disagrees with an idea. When do middle-aged men not complain? I must say that your sarcasm towards an actual author (as opposed to a virtual one) is also in bad taste and very vindictive of your jealousy or lack of craft skill. If there is one thing that the internet has killed, it is the tack of polite disagreement, and you sir have swung hard at a horse already suffering from rigor mortis and decomposition.
If you agree with me than you will think about the last time you read a book cover to cover and possibly pick up another one out of guilt or understanding. If you disagree, than you ought to write a book yourself; a book that gets printed on paper because it’s worth its paper. If you do neither, than you will probably ‘moderate this comment it is not approved by the blog author,’ which would in turn make you a homophily and a hypocrite.