Transcription

1Is Google Making UsStupid?Nicholas CarrWhat the Internet is doing to our brains"Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So thesupercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut DaveBowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end ofStanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly beensent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly,coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial “brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I canfeel it.”I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortablesense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain,

2remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mindisn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking theway 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. Mymind 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’srarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift aftertwo or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking forsomething else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brainback to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally hasbecome a struggle.I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve beenspending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimesadding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been agodsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in thestacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. Afew Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got thetelltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’mas likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets’reading andwriting e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos andlistening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlikefootnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merelypoint to related works; they propel you toward them.)For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, theconduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and earsand into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to suchan incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve beenwidely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of siliconmemory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormousboon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theoristMarshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passivechannels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they alsoshape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing ischipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Mymind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it:in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in thesea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading tofriends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many saythey’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, themore they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Someof the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon.Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessedthat he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in

3college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “Whathappened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my readingon the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m justseeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers inmedicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mentalhabits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb alongish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. Apathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University ofMichigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in atelephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a“staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages oftext from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,”he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of morethan three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”Anecdotes alone don’t prove much. And we still await the long-termneurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitivepicture of how Internet use affects cognition. But a recently publishedstudy of online research habits , conducted by scholars from UniversityCollege London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a seachange in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year researchprogram, the scholars examined computer logs documenting thebehavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by theBritish Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provideaccess to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of writteninformation. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form ofskimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarelyreturning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read nomore than one or two pages of an article or book before they would“bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, butthere’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. Theauthors of the study report:It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense;indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users“power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstractsgoing for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoidreading in the traditional sense.Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention thepopularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be readingmore today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our

4medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it liesa different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “Weare not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmentalpsychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid:The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.”Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style thatputs “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening ourcapacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earliertechnology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prosecommonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “meredecoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the richmental connections that form when we read deeply and withoutdistraction, remains largely disengaged.Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’snot etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our mindshow to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language weunderstand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning andpracticing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping theneural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readersof ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry forreading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of uswhose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extendacross many regions of the brain, including those that govern suchessential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visualand auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven byour use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading ofbooks and other printed works.Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a MallingHansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keepinghis eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, oftenbringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail hiswriting, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. Thetypewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touchtyping, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips ofhis fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’sfriends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. Hisalready terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhapsyou will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friendwrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in musicand language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”Also see:

5Living With a Computer(July 1982) "The process works this way. When I sit down to write a letter or startthe first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appearon the screen." By James Fallows“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part inthe forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes theGerman media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose “changedfrom arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric totelegram style.”The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to thinkthat our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the timewe reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’snot the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs theKrasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, saysthat even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break oldconnections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has theability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectualtechnologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physicalcapacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of thosetechnologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics andCivilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford describedhow the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped createthe belief in an independent world of mathematically measurablesequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the pointof reference for both action and thought.”The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientificmind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As thelate MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment toCalculation, the conception of the world that emerged from thewidespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverishedversion of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those directexperiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the oldreality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stoppedlistening to our senses and started obeying the clock.The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected inthe changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. Whenthe mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains asoperating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come

6to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes,neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to ourbrain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects oncognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician AlanTuring proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only asa theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function ofany other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeingtoday. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, issubsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becomingour map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, ourcalculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’simage. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads,and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with thecontent of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message,for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latestheadlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention anddiffuse our concentration.The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen,either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internetmedia, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s newexpectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, andmagazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsulesummaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.When, in March of this year, TheNew York Times decided to devote thesecond and third pages of every edition to article abstracts , its designdirector, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts” would give harriedreaders a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “lessefficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles.Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as t