The Internet Is Making You Smarter!

IT'LL END IN TEARSThere are a lot of panic-ridden books out there designed to maximize the terror in which many American readers apparently enjoy spending their leisure hours. Amazon returns over a hundred results for just the phrase “The Coming Crisis.” The crises that are coming are to do with radical Islam, the rise of judicial power, agricultural disasters (var.), the collapse of the educational system, nuclear proliferation, water running out, government bankruptcies, and a swarm of aging boomers who are going to swoop down like locusts and devour what little is left. Evidently, all we have to hear is ack, we are getting dumber! We are going to get sick, be attacked and die, plus Muslims! The sky is falling! and ka-ching goes the cash register. Such is the paranoia of our times (and, I suspect, all times.)

Squarely in this tradition, Nicholas Carr’s hand-wringing article in The Atlantic (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” July, 2008) created such a promising frisson of fear that the author has expanded it into a book called The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Mr. Carr contends that the Internet, with all its too-readily-available information and hyperlinks and brightly flashing distractions, is ruining our ability to concentrate: the Internet, he says, is literally brain-damaging. Laura Miller had this to say about the book recently in Salon:

In the brief period between the writing of the original piece and the publication of “The Shallows,” neuroscientists have performed and reviewed important studies on the effects of multitasking, hyperlinks, multimedia and other information-age innovations on human brain function, all of which add empirical heft to Carr’s arguments.

The results are not cheering, and the two chapters in which Carr details them are, to my mind, the book’s payload. This evidence — that even the microseconds of decision-making attention demanded by hyperlinks saps cognitive power from the reading process, that multiple sensory inputs severely degrade memory retention, that overloading the limited capacity of our short-term memory hampers our ability to lay down long-term memories — is enough to make you want to run right out and buy Internet-blocking software.

The original article was born of the author’s realization that he can’t concentrate like he used to. “[M]y concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages,” he writes ominously. Anybody might be excused for supposing this decreased capacity to be the natural consequence of anxiety, age, boredom or exhaustion, but not this author. He can’t concentrate, okay. I blame the Internet! he exclaims, out of the clear blue. Then he asks a bunch of his friends, who can’t concentrate, either. Somehow, they all agree that the Internet is to blame. None of them seems to have heard of the famous caution, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, or to realize that this little malady could have any number of causes. It happens to me every time my mother comes over, I regret to say. Maybe they all have toxoplasmosis, did they ever think of that?

In any case, isn’t it already pretty dodgy for Carr to admit that he can’t concentrate, and then try to persuade us of anything whatsoever? Shouldn’t he go take some fish oil capsules (oh wait! Those don’t work!) and get his marbles back first?

The answer to that question is “yes,” because Carr’s original argument, as evidenced by the Atlantic article and by the more recent one, in the Wall Street Journal, is profoundly unconvincing.

Hyperlinks, the proliferation of which Mr. Carr largely blames for his mental infirmity, are in no way different from footnotes. Footnotes, too, demand “microseconds of decision-making attention.” Just as a footnote does, a hyperlink beckons you away from the main text in order to examine tangentially-related but relevant material. Exactly like a hyperlink, a footnote often has the effect of sending you down a series of rabbit holes, from which you emerge hours later, armed with a dozen other books-that is, if you want to investigate the subject in fine detail. If you don’t, then by all means, you can skip the footnotes.

So do footnotes also “sap cognitive power from the reading process”?

Heavily annotated works have been useful for centuries to students of every discipline we’ve got, and their distraction-potential, though clear, is completely eclipsed by the invaluable advantage of access to a ton of carefully-signposted material that can greatly ease the conduct of serious study. It’s well worth the extra effort of concentration; if you want the goods, you’ll put up with the cost.

Untrained and/or young readers commonly have trouble with densely annotated texts; they really are relatively difficult to navigate. Advanced readers, however, love them, and know how to use them. Practice at reading these complex texts makes you better and better at it, like practice in most things. And as it happens, modern technology also makes this sort of work a lot easier and considerably less distracting, for example via the “Open in New Tab” command on any browser. It is very nice not to have to lug a stack of books into a cubicle every time you want to know some stuff!

All this flies in the face of Carr’s thesis; it’s the sophisticated reader who most enjoys and can make use of the most densely “distracting” material. If the subject is of deep interest, a mature reader will patiently follow every reference out to its appointed end, a task which in itself, yes, demands extra effort, extra focus. Has any of this ever made anybody any dumber? I think not.

And does the extra concentration required for reading a scholarly text correspond to the kind of extra concentration required for reading online? Yes.

What Carr is saying is basically: TMI, and for whatever reason, he doesn’t have the discipline to handle it all. But I really don’t think that’s true of everyone.

Carr explicitly disagrees that footnotes are equivalent to hyperlinks, by the bye. He mentions them just once in the Atlantic article:

Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.

The fogginess of this reasoning-what does this mean, ‘propel’?-is evident throughout the original essay. The means by which one navigates through text are consistent within the medium-you page through all the pages of a book, and you click through all the pages of a website. For some reason, “propulsion” is supposed to be bad for you and “pointing” isn’t, but Carr doesn’t even attempt to explain why. (I know-he can’t concentrate! Was there ever a more dangerous admission to make at the outset of an argument?)

In order to make the case that our mental capacity can be damaged by using the Internet, Carr refers to scientific studies indicating that the brain can be altered by how we choose to use it. And that is really what puts the final nail in the coffin of his theory.

Miller wrote:

Above all, Carr points to the past 20-some years of neurological research indicating that the human brain is, in the words of one scientific pioneer, “massively plastic” — that is, much like our muscles, it can be substantially changed and developed by what we do with it.

Surely, if that is so, it militates directly against Carr’s argument: our incredibly adaptable brains, armed with the colossal resources of humanity’s pooled knowledge, will develop all kinds of new musculature. Far from being debilitating, the web is like an incomparable new exercise machine. Okay, you’re going to get sore from using it for a while, but eventually you’ll emerge with the brain-physique of a Superman. The Internet is making us all supremely better-informed and far more capable of serious study. If anything is making us dumber, I daresay it is this paranoid attitude toward the very tools that are leading us into all kinds of richer, more complex understanding.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.