captain, the crew is de-evolving

My name is Ben, and I’m addicted to the Internet.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered at some point or another: just what the heck is wrong with me?  Since the full answer is well beyond the scope of one post, or tome for that matter, let’s narrow the question.

How often do you read an entire article online? Can you remember what you read yesterday?  Do you constantly feel an urge to check your email, Facebook or cell?  Well friend, there’s something wrong with us.  We can’t focus for sustained periods of time and retaining information is impossible.  Thankfully, I’ve found something other than our selves to blame.

There’s a ton of psychological data (assuming it’s a real science) showing that external stimuli physically affect the brain.  Drugs and alcohol, as is often the case, are the easiest way to grasp this concept.  The substance induces a release of good-feeling chemicals in your brain, your body feels good, so you do it again.  And again. Physical changes ensue, altering the way your brain functions even when you’re not on the drug, and you have likely entered the realm of addiction.  But hey, who hasn’t?

This phenomena isn’t limited to substances.  Any experience, or exercise of your senses, has an effect on your brain.  Like flowing water that channels a path through earth, a consistent flow of stimuli (repetition), increases the impact on your brain’s composition.  This is the foundation for Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

your brain on books

your brain on books

I’ll try to keep this pithy, because I’m sure the ADD is about to kick in.  Carr’s thesis: man makes the tool and the tool shapes the man.  “When a ditchdigger trades his shovel for a backhoe, his arm muscles weaken even as his efficiency increases.”

In an afternoon on the web, we can access more information than we could ever hope to store in our brains.  While the boosted processing power may make us feel smarter, we’re not.  We are skilled hunters and gatherers of information, but our understanding is shallow.  As dependency on an external brain increases, the internal brain is re-wired accordingly.

Compounding the kiddie-pool depth dilema is the environment of the Internet: distraction.  The web encompasses all forms of media like no other medium.  It’s a radio, newspaper, tv, magazine and book.  It’s this last one that really bothers Carr.  The quiet environment of the book, whose bounded pages filter out the distractions of the world, evolved the thinking of man.

ADD was necessary for man to survive in the wild.  It helped us be aware of as many threats and opportunities as possible.  Who’s feet are crunching leaves?  What’s that shiny thing over there?  Books came along and silently changed our brains: “In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”  And this transformed humans, argues Carr, into linear thinkers.

your brain on Internet

your brain on Internet

In comes the Internet, with all it’s glorious links and youtube clips and status updates to distract our minds from deep thought.  The linear brain is de-evolving.  The juggler’s brain returns.  What’s that flashy video?  What’s my inbox have for me?

Carr acknowledges that scanning/attention shifting is a vital skill on the Internet.  And we are becoming adept at making quick decisions.  There’s a lot of crap on the Internet, like this very post, and we must decide quickly if we should invest our time reading something.  The problem arises when this scanning and rapid attention shifting becomes our primary way of thinking.  The tool is shaping our minds.

Sure, networked thinking can be a good thing, but what brain muscles atrophy in the process?  And what happens if we lose the network?  Our meat has come to us pre-slaughtered for so long that I’m not sure I’m capable of killing the animal myself.  Many of us remember the analog world, and it’s way of thinking, but the rising generations won’t….

Every new technology obviously has negative and positive affects on mankind.  We’ve gained much from these shiny new toys, but we can’t turn a blind eye to what we may be losing.  I fear that google searches and ceaseless entertainment may externalize imagination to the machine.  Why wonder about a question when you can search for the answer online?  And if the capacity to dream is lost, will man have finally become machine?

Human beings become little more than ‘the sex organs of the machine world,’ as McLuhan memorably wrote in the ‘Gadget Lover’…Our essential role is to produce ever more sophisticated tools—to ‘fecundate’ machines as bees fecundate plants—until technology has developed the capacity to reproduce itself on its own. At that point, we become dispensable.

I know this post is a bit lengthy, so I don’t expect many to have trudged the whole way through.  Research suggests people spend an average of 18 seconds on a page.  If you’ve stayed longer, I’d love to hear your thoughts on technology and man.

** Post title is a nod to Star Strek: The Next Generation, episode 171, The Genesis