Nicholas Carr: Why the Human Brain Can't Multitask by FORAtv
The internet's not just making us stupid, it's possibly also feeding our egos, leaching away our empathy and making us poor. That's if you believe a whole host of writers currently making a living from predicting that the web is ruining us all.
Among them is Nicholas Carr, the technology writer and author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, who explained his views to the Seoul Digital Forum last week.
"The medium does matter," Carr writes. Unlike a book, which focuses our minds, he says, a networked computer "is designed to scatter our attention... It's hard not to conclude that as we adapt to the intellectual environment of the Net our thinking becomes shallower."
It's easy to agree: tabbed browsing seems designed for procrastination; Facebook and Twitter encourage us to spend time reading and writing short, shallow remarks; and Wikipedia and Google provide access to way too much information to properly process.
On the other hand, laziness, gossip and a surfeit of facts are nothing new - surely it's up to us to make good use of whatever technology is at hand. Alarmists such as the 15th-century Venetian editor Hieronimo Squarciafico were warning people against the dangers of publishing long ago: "Abundance of books makes men less studious," Squarciafico wrote, just after the invention of the printing press.
This anxiety dates all the way back to Socrates, who worried about scrolls, as William Powers recalls in Hamlet's BlackBerry, another book warning against the incessant allure of the pinging smart phone. Once people could read and write, the philosopher thought, they would no longer need to remember things - and they could absorb a biased view rather than engaging in dialogue.
But a 2009 study suggests that a bit of internet browsing might boost concentration levels, by giving the brain a timely rest. "People who surf the internet for fun at work - within a reasonable limit of less than 20 per cent of their total time in the office - are more productive, by about nine per cent, than those who don't," Dr Brent Coker of the University of Melbourne said following a study of 300 workers. He also identified less-productive workers, however, who use the internet an unhealthy amount.
Even if it does interrupt us now and again, the internet can be seen as a sort of external memory drive for our minds, expanding our consciousness and doing the hard work of remembering things so that we can free up more space for other mental work. In Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension, the philosopher Andy Clark argues that machines such as iPhones and computers with Wi-Fi, in taking over functions that we used to perform, have become part of us.
So perhaps Google is increasing our brain power and not making us more stupid - so long as we make use of it in the right way. Which perhaps means looking up facts when we need them and reading whole articles online, as opposed to updating social network sites and jumping from link to link.
Even so, there are writers who take issue with the digital age for different reasons. The virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier argues in his book You Are Not a Gadget that file-sharing will bankrupt society's creativity. In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle (a social science professor at MIT) looks at the psychological effects of the web: the way texting is easier and less awkward than calling, virtual worlds demand less of us than the real one, and time spent on social network sites only gives us the illusion of interacting.
Although some studies have shown that social networking online usually supplements, rather than replaces, face-to-face socialising, Turkle warns that interacting via machines is always easier than the real thing, and that can have a creeping effect. Who hasn't experienced the modern situation of sitting at a table in a restaurant, with friends, only to look up and find everyone looking at their phones?
The neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer disagrees with Turkle, calling the internet "just another tool, an accessory that allows us to do what we've always done: interact with one other". The written word may have damaged oral storytelling traditions, but not many of us would give up our bookshelves. Nor would we advocate a life spend reading, without any other forms of communication.
The internet's easy to access in countries like this one: it's tempting to spend too much time there. But TV didn't kill radio and films didn't kill books. The internet, then, probably doesn't spell the end of culture, empathy and socialising. I'm with Lehrer: the digital kids will be all right.