“We program our computers and thereafter they program us.”
Nicolas Carr’s “2001” conclusions can seem over the top, especially in the final chapters of his study of “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” the subtitle to his book The Shallows. But if you’re skeptical of hyperbole, there’s much to recommend this book.
First, his research is impressive, though reading about some of the psychological studies can be tedious. But in the early portions of the book, his documentation of the history of reading and the impact the printed word has had on society is a fascinating read.
His main thesis is that reading on the Internet, with numerous hyperlinks and other links on the page “change the way we use, experience and understand the content.” And it’s not for the better. He believes that reading this way makes it hard to concentrate and ultimately, hard to reason and think creatively.
He also believes social networking sites create self-consciousness, particularly younger folks. My own experience tends to confirm that idea: One person I know, who shall remain nameless, sends and receives more than 3,000 texts a month. That’s 100 per day. Personally, I have a Facebook account but find most of the posts by my friends to be drivel. About the only posts I make are links to my blogs.
But many of Carr’s conclusions seem to mirror my own experience as a slave to the Internet.
What makes this book interesting is that Carr’s conclusions are supported by dozens of experiments and studies that he cites in the book. One for example, which he believes supports the theory that using the ‘Net makes us dumber, is one where two groups similar in cognitive function were asked to solve a simple problem on a computer. The first group used software that provided clues and helpful hints. The second group used a very basic software that simply allowed them to complete the tasks (it required moving blocks into a defined order) with no hints or clues. Although the first group started out better, they quickly fell behind and the second group solved the puzzle more quickly because, Carr argues, they had to think more creatively than the first group, which became lazy and dependent on the hints. Dependent, and Carr argues, constrained by the software. Repeating the study yielded the same results.
The Googling of America is not only making us all less creative but is leading to an homogenization of thought. By looking at citations in scholarly papers from 1945 to 2008, he finds today, with online access to sources, such papers cite fewer sources than older papers—before the Internet. This is caused in part by Google’s algorithms that produce results based on the popularity of the click throughs on those results, thereby making it more difficult to find the less often cited papers that may change our conclusions. Googling also tend to emphasize the most recent papers so that we overvalue what’s happening now.
Finally, Carr contends that all the time we spend absorbing myriad facts and information bits reduces the time we should spend contemplating, i.e., thinking.
After he finished the book, he heard of a new development that he added as an epilogue. A large educational testing firm developed new software that would review students’ essays and grade them. The result is that the student can only achieve high marks if he conforms to the parameters established by the software. Where is the evaluation of creativity and writing that is unusual yet compelling?
Indeed, how compelling and creative can we be if our information is filtered and presented in a way that precludes contemplation?