Apparently, my blog will make you stupid. It's no good fleeing to another blog, though: they all make you stupid. That is, if you agree with Nicholas Carr's book, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains". The thesis of the book is that our use of the Internet is changing our brains, affecting deep learning, long term memory and our ability to focus.
I first heard about this book at a No Fluff Just Stuff developer's conference, where more than one panelist at one session cited this book with respect. Clearly, I thought, this is not a book for Luddites if a bunch of technophiles are reading it. This book is not a reaction against modernity. In fact, I'd say that it is trying to preserve an aspect of human progress now threatened by the Internet. I'll get to that in a moment.
Our plastic brains
The first thing that Carr establishes in the book is the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. Contrary to the old conventional wisdom that our brain is largely fully formed by the time we are adults, our brains continue to change. New neurons might develop or new synaptic terminals emerge to adapt to demands on the brain. The human brain will change in reaction to physical injury, to repetitive activity and even to pure thought. Think about that: you can make physical changes to your brain just by thinking. That is a true power of mind over matter, as long as the matter is your brain.
These neurological changes form new "vital paths". Your brain becomes more adept at certain activities, while losing ability in others. It becomes easier to do or think in certain ways, and harder to avoid them. Those vital paths become ruts. Remember, the word is "plastic", not "elastic". In other words, we form habits, whether they be virtues or vices.
The brain of the book
The tools of humanity do not just amplify our abilities. Some tools also change the way we think. Maps, for example, allow us to evaluate geographical locations in abstract rather than visual forms. For Carr, one tool that has affected humanity profoundly is the book.
The revolution did not merely start with Gutenberg. When words were etched in clay tablets, you probably needed an inconveniently large truck to carry around a Stephen King novel. But beyond the medium, the content itself was difficult to read. Even after phonetic lettering were invented, there were no spaces between words, no word ordering conventions and no punctuation. Such text -- scriptura continua -- were raw transcriptions of the spoken word that needed to be verbalized to make sense. The act of reading was strenuous and intellectually difficult. Only a dedicated, elite few -- such as those who studied scripture -- were capable of such activity.
Soon, we had words on paper: spaced, punctuated, ordered and easy to read. The new medium and content opened books to ordinary minds, and Gutenberg's press opened books to ordinary wallets. Now for many people, ideas could flow effortlessly from page to mind, faster and easier than speech. Ordinary people could spent extended periods of time in prolonged learning: focused and silent, contemplating and making connections. Their neurons developed the capacity for deep reading. It didn't matter if they read lowbrow literature: their synaptic terminals developed all the same. The masses gained the habits of literacy.
A critical partner to deep learning is long term memory. We techies like to think of human memory -- both short term and long term -- as similar to computer storage. But Carr points out that long term memory is vastly different in both quality and kind. For one thing, it is limitless: neuroplasticity means our brains will adapt and develop to accommodate new experiences. For another, long term memory is connected. Our brain consolidates experiences, connecting them to past experiences. Every time we recall a memory, that consolidation is done again, making new connections. Information is organized into complex concepts or "schemas", patterns that "give depth and richness to our thinking". These schemas contribute to our expertise and wisdom. In other words, filling long term memory does not clutter our minds, but makes us sharper.
On the other hand, long term memory takes time to form. Proteins are secreted and new synaptic terminals formed. The focused, sustained, deep learning of book reading provides the brain with both time and content to ingest. Humanity has now left the shallows, and waded into the depths of knowledge and literacy.
The Googled mind
Carr goes out of his way to acknowledge the advantages that the Internet has brought us. Nevertheless, the effects of Internet use on our mind is something we need to, um, keep in mind. Carr points out that Google's business model is relies on keeping us clicking, flitting from page to page in order to increase the likelihood of clicking through an ad. Google is "in the business of distraction". This also describes our use of the web in general. We click links distractedly and do not go deep. A cacophony of short term stimuli drives us to constantly navigate, decide and jump. The sheer breadth of information on the net at our finger tips makes us feel smart without obliging us to fully comprehend it.
The web is a different medium, the first -- unlike radio and TV -- to offer an alternative to books as a medium for the written word. It's a stimulating, addictive environment, but one that steals our attention only to disperse it. Eye-tracking studies show that the web surfer's reading pattern is not line by line as with a book, but like the letter F: scan a line or two, scoot down the left side, maybe read another couple of lines in the middle, then down and out. Bye bye. All this activity comes at the expense of actually reading anything in-depth. If you manage to finish this blog entry, try clicking on the link to Carr's original Atlantic article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?". When I opened that magazine article on my browser, my first thought was "That's too long! I'm not going to read that!". The funny thing is that I had just finished reading his entire book.
This does not mean we merely become "dumb". Searching, scanning, navigating rapidly exercise our decision making and problem solving abilities. There is mental activity. The NYT book reviewer Jonah Lehrer (who managed to miss the point) tried to defend the net by pointing out the increased activity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in Google users and the improved visual perceptions of video gamers. Funnily enough, Carr described those same facts in his book. His point is that such activity exercises different areas of our brain, strengthening those vital paths at the expense of those we need for deep reading. In fact, the distracted browsing of the web is cognitively strenuous, which explains that elevated activity in the prefrontal cortex. A busy brain is not necessarily a learning brain. It is merely busy. Distracted. You need a calm brain to learn, but thanks to neuroplasticity our net activity is rapidly rewiring our brains for frenetic, distracted activity. We're back to the mental load of scriptura continua.
What about e-books, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' cure for "information snacking"? We know we don't read longer works in the browser. And when books are repackaged in electronic form, heavy use of hypertext is a form of distraction that studies have shown to hinder learning.
Back to the shallows
The heavy cognitive load and distraction of the net clutters our working memory, hindering absorption into long term memory. Our short attention spans starves us of time needed to move knowledge into long term memory. Our deliberate outsourcing of our memory to Google starves us of content that could go into long term memory. Our busy net habits now deprive us of the calm mind needed for deep learning. Without deep learning feeding long term memory, we don't carry out that consolidation of information into schemas. We may be losing humanity's hard-worn ability to absorb and organize knowledge.
Perhaps our minds are devolving again to its distracted, primitive state, losing the intellectual gains we have made in modern times. Short bird-like attention spans were useful at one point, to detect predator or food.
The shallow developer
This is a blog for developers. Let's ask what this could mean for development. If we do not have the attention span for anything bigger than a web page, what does that say about our ability to write large software projects? Nicholas Carr only managed to write his book by basically taking a vacation from the net. I don't think we can do that: so much of our collective technical knowledge is online. Addictive as it is, the net is both our medium of work and our medium of distraction. We are alcoholics working in a brewery.
Software people often talk about programmer flow: that state of mind where the programmer is fully immersed, focused and productive. Unfortunately, the net is a hive of distraction, and we're always connected. Some developers, like Seth Godin (see link to his blog entry below), recognize the Internet's drain on our productivity. There are ways to limit its distractions, but it is a struggle.
Productivity aside, what does it say about us as persons, if we allow our intellect to disperse? I find the idea of a civilization incapable of of handling book-length intellectual work disturbing. The movie WALL-E comes to mind: fat blob people frenetically wired and absorbed, but completely incompetent for any real task (such as reading a book). That was a Pixar movie, so of course it had a happy ending. Whether we can device our own happy endings, or end up too distracted to notice, remains to be seen.
- Is Google Making Us Stupid? Nicholas Carr's original Atlantic article on which his book is based.
- The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains official website for the book.
- Are you making something? Seth Godin's blog entry about his struggle to get work done while connected.