The Future Mundane #2

google’s presence in the future

This post is about a bit of research I did on Google’s search engine as it is now, and how it has changed the way we live.

Search engines aren’t just an option for research; they are the most prevalent way that we encounter new information — which changes the scope of research on how they’re affecting us.

In recent years, the company has experimented with systems that allow us to record our location, actions and experiences on the site — outsourcing our personal memories from our heads to the Web.

“The good news about that study is we can retrain our brain to reactivate those skills,” explains Small. “Nothing is being lost forever.”

Our research group recently found that six-graders who spent five days at nature camp without even glancing at a smartphone, television or any other screen were better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to text, watch TV, and play video games for about four-and-a-half hours each day.

…I’m concerned that they are losing the opportunity to learn empathy.

The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

“It becomes easier to confuse your own knowledge with this external source. When people are truly on their own, they may be wildly inaccurate about how much they know and how dependent they are on the Internet.”

“Accurate personal knowledge is difficult to achieve, and the Internet may be making that task even harder.” – Matthew Fisher

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.

My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.

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 abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

“We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist 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 that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. […] Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”

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