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.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

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