Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is the web affecting our brains?

I know I've felt it. In my own realization, it seems like I have been less proficient at retaining the information itself, and more focused on just knowing how to get to the information I need. Instead of remembering all the data around "fact A," I usually end up just knowing that all the information on "fact A" is over at website "fact"

It opens up the question about the internet and how we use it. Because it is such a new thing, I think many (not only myself) are having to learn a certain discipline in using this new tool. The internet is certainly a great and powerful tool for information and ideas, but it is a two edged sword. For all the information and ideas it has, it also has a lot of misinformation and bad ideas. It's easy to get distracted while researching something to watch a quick video clip, read a quick sports result, or just start surfing on some unrelated tangent.

It's interesting that I found this article after making my post yesterday about buying some good old fashioned books. So, part of the veracity of an article I just found will be if you can even get through the article or not. However, it is a good article to give some thought about the internet and it's effect on our thought processes as we move deeper into the digital age.

The article is called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" over at The Atlantic

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—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)


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?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”


Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

Like I said, it's certainly worth reading the whole article. It touches on several things I have personally experienced.

I know that even though I do feel I read much, much more now (mostly on the web though), it's often more trivial things, or just blurbs rather than focusing on the whole of the article. And I also will gravitate towards things that are more entertaining than necessarily intellectual. It sort of worried me that I recognized just about every internet celebrity in the latest Weezer video for "Pork and Beans" (yes, those are the real internet personae in the video).

See, I had to slip in that little bit o' entertainment, either to keep your (or more likely my own) attention.

See if you agree with me or not.

Oh well, off to read some more Don Quixote.


1 comment:

Ronny said...

I'd be interested in seeing a study that tracked prescriptions of methylphenidate with the average time the patient spent watching television or surfing the Internet.