“information everywhere but not a drop to contemplate”

Nicholas Carr’s book

“What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows” has had a deep impact on my thinking about disturbing trends in our society that I had already noticed. Carr demonstrates, with reference to scientific research and philosophical insights, how the computer and the resulting internet (and related market-driven stimulations) are remapping our brains and creating a social and intellectual wasteland in the midst of an unprecedented wealth of information. I have selected a few critical quotes from Carr’s book and will refer to him in an upcoming article.

It is truly “information everywhere but not a drop to contemplate.”

Nicholas Carr

But the news is not all good. Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. The paradox of neuroplasticity, observes Norman Doidge, is that, for all the mental flexibility that it grants up, it can end up locking us into “rigid behaviors.” The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired the new circuitry in our brain, Doidge writes, “we long to keep it activated.” That is the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out even more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away. (page 34)

The potential for unwelcome neuroplastic adaptations also exists in the everyday, normal functioning of our minds. Experiments show that just as the brain can build new or stronger circuits through physical or mental practice, those circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect. “If we stop exercising our mental skills,” writes Norman Doidge, “we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.” Jeffrey Schwartz, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s medical school, terms this process “survival of the busiest.” The mental skills we sacrifice may be as valuable, or more valuable, than the ones we gain. When it comes to the quality of our thought, our neurons and synapses are entirely indifferent. The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains. (page 35)

“A new medium is never an addition to an old one,” wrote McLuhan in Understanding Media, “nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.” His observation rings particularly true today. Traditional media, even electronic ones, are being refashioned and repositioned as they go through the shift to online distribution. When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image. It not only dissolves the medium’s physical form; it injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. All these changes in the form of the content also change the way we use, experience, and even understand the content.

(page 89)

What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work? No doubt, this question will be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise. The news is even more disturbing that I had expected. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it is possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards. (page 115)

One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book. (page 116)

As we go through these motions, the Net delivers a steady stream of inputs to our visual, somatosensory, and auditory cortices. There are sensations that come through our hands and fingers as we click and scroll, type and touch. There are the many audio signals delivered through our ears, such as the chime that announces the arrival of a new e-mail or instant message and the various ringtones that our mobile phones use to alter us to different events.

The net also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards—“positive reinforcements,” in psychological terms—which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions.

(omitted)

The Net commands our attention with a far greater insistency than our television or radio or morning newspaper ever did.

(page 117)

This is particularly true for the young who tend to be compulsive in using their phones and computers for texting and instant messaging. Today’s teenagers typically send or receive a message every few minutes throughout their waking hours. As the psychotherapist Michael Hausauer notes, teens 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.” If they stop sending messages, they risk becoming invisible. (page 118)

The constant distractedness that the Net encourages—the state of being, to borrow another phrase from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “distracted from distraction by distraction” –is very different from the kind of temporary, purposeful diversion of our mind that refreshes our thinking when we’re weighing a decision. The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again. (page 119)

What we’re not doing when we’re online also has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quite reflection and contemplation, the circuits the support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones. (page 120)

But brain scientists have come to realize that long-term memory is actually the seat of understanding. It stores not just facts but complex concepts, or “schemas.” By organizing scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge, schemas give depth and richness to our thinking. “Our intellectual prowess is derived largely from the schemas we have acquired over long periods of time,” says John Sweller. “We are able to understand concepts in our areas of expertise because we have schemas associated with those concepts.”

(page 124)

Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas.

With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source. (page 124)

Still, [Google’s] easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by artificial intelligence is as unsettling as it is revealing. It underscores the firmness and the certainty with which Google holds to its Taylorist belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. “Human beings are ashamed to have been born instead of made,” the twentieth-century philosopher Gunther Anders once observed, and in the pronouncement of Google’s founders, we can sense that shame as well as the ambition it engenders.

One response to ““information everywhere but not a drop to contemplate”

  1. Nicolejody January 31, 2019 at 7:06 pm

    Particularly find the comment about humans being ashamed of being born rather than made of interest & depth.
    https://www.edge.org/conversation/susan_schneider-the-future-of-the-mind
    Some interesting ideas discussed by Susan Schneider on same theme.

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