Is Google making us stupid

McLuhan declared that ‘electric media’ — telephone, radio, movies, television — were breaking the control that text had over our thoughts. Where once we were cut off from each other is now becoming whole again, turning into a global village. We are approaching “the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.”

What we have forgotten through our constant repetition of McLuhan’s popular saying “the medium is the message” is that he was also sounding a warning about the threat the power poses — and the risk of being oblivious to it.

“The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was formed”

— Marshall McLuhan

People naturally get caught up with the information in the medium and the technology of the medium disappears. People are arguing, and will continue to do so for many years to come, over the effects any medium has on us, whether they are good or bad. They are usually arguing about the content and not the medium. What both enthusiasts and skeptics miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run the medium matters more than the content itself in affecting how we think and act. As the vehicle for information the medium molds what we see and how we see it, and eventually, it can change who we are as individuals and as a society.

Our brains

Neuroscientists have found, through the mapping of monkeys’ brains, that our brains have the ability to reprogram themselves. When someone’s arm is amputated, the neurons that are responsible for the feeling of this arm are reprogrammed for a different function. This is why if someone is suddenly struck blind, the part of the brain that had been dedicated to processing visual stimuli doesn’t go dark. It is quickly taken over by the circuits used for audio processing and if the person learned to read braille, the visual cortex will be redeployed for processing information delivered through the sense of touch.

The brain is ever changing and remapping itself, the areas of the brain that are in control of our more routine tasks seem to be larger and more developed. In the 1990’s a study was carried out on London cab drivers, whose experience varied between 2 and 40 years. The area of the brain that plays a key role in storing and manipulating spatial representations of a person’s surroundings was much larger in the cab drivers with more experience. It was also found that other parts of the brain were smaller as a result of the other more specialised area.

Through the repetition of a physical or mental activity particular circuits in our brain start to strengthen and they begin to convert that activity into a habit. The problem with our brain remapping is that, even though it gives us great mental flexibility, it can result in settling us into fixed behaviors. Our chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us to want to keep exercising the new circuits they have formed. This, as a result, “specialises” them even more and digs us even deeper into our habit. Once we’ve created new circuitry in our brain we long to keep it activated. In effect, we carry out our routine activities faster and with more efficiency but at the sacrifice of our unused circuits, which are slowly pruned away.

Our concentration

“Intellectual technologies” are tools used to extend or support our mental powers. Internet falls into this group, along with the computer, the typewriter, the library, the book, the school, the globe and the abacus. They are used to classify information, to formulate and articulate ideas, to share knowledge, to make measurements and perform calculations and to expand the capacity of our memory. What’s hard to understand is the influence these technologies have on the functioning of our brains.

We know that the form of a human brain hasn’t changed much in the last forty thousand years. But the ways human beings think and act have changed almost beyond recognition.

“His social life, his habits, have changed completely, have even undergone reversion and reversal, while his heredity seems to have changed very little if at all, since the late Stone Age.”

H. G. Wells

The process of reading a book demands uninterrupted, complete attention to a single object. This is an unnatural process for humans; people have to train their brains to ignore all of the distractions that are that are going on around them. They have to strengthen the neural links needed to defy their urge to get distracted.

“The ability to focus on a single task, relatively uninterrupted, a strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development.”

— Vaughan Bell

For hundreds of years we have been training our brains in this way and now, in the matter of a decade or two, our brains need to reprogram themselves again to adjust to read and view information on the internet. We no longer need to focus on one subject or area, but small snippets from many subjects. Search engines fragment information down to what is relevant to whatever we are searching for, without giving us any urge to view the work as a whole.

“We don’t see the forest when we search the web.
We don’t even see the trees.
We see twigs and leaves.”

— Nicholas Carr

This, unfortunately, is spreading our attention span too thin. Studies show that people who read texts studded with links understand less than those reading texts on the printed page. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, updates and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are often less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.

This effect on our brains is spilling over onto all aspects of our lives, not just on the internet. We are more easily distracted with everything we do, it is harder to hold conversations, watch movies, drive, with all these things vying for our attention. A single task no longer grabs our attention and holds on to it till it is done.

While researching into the article of Nicholas Carr I was reading comments on blogs and came across the following ones.

I haven’t even read the article (seeing how long it is), but I absolutely love your commentary. Very well put together and very thought provoking. — Pinksalmon
On a friend’s recommendation, I googled for this article and just read the first couple paragraphs. It’s way too long. But in general I agree. — Simplulo
This article is too long!!! — Browserism

I find these comments comically ironic because it proves the point that we would rather skim through a long article or even just read the comments instead of getting really deep into it. It has now become common practice to read what other people think about a given subject rather than reading the actual subject and forming our own opinions.

Our memory

Socrates was right to worry about people getting accustomed to writing down their thoughts and reading what other people had written down before them. They became less dependent on the contents of their own memory. What we once had to store in our heads could be stored on tablets or paper and now on the internet. He was wrong though not to embrace the fact that people were now able to possess a more diverse supply of facts, opinions, ideas and stories that weren’t available before.

The internet has taken over from our memory. We no longer need to remember directions, the list for our shopping, the birthdays of our friends or even our own ideas when we can store them on the internet. Through the invention of smartphones, all this could now be done from the palm of your hand.

David Brooks summed it up nicely when he said, “I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realised that the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants — silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.”

Is memorisation a waste of time? Peter Suderman of American Scene says; “Why memorise a single book when you could be using your brain to hold a quick guide to an entire library? Rather than memorise information, we now store it digitally and just remember what we stored.”

We must be careful though. We are starting to rely too much on these “servants” and without them we will not be able to function in the same way. We are too dependent on the internet and all this modern technology, and because our brains have remapped themselves to adapt to our new way of thinking, or not thinking, it leaves us vulnerable to the loss of internet. We need to start to understand our position with the internet and not take it for granted. If your smartphone crashes, where will you be? Would you be able to navigate to where you need to go? Would you be able to remember your to-dos of the day? The internet is a double-edged sword and that is one thing we must always keep in our minds. For all the good it brings, it also brings an equal amount of bad. An understanding of the importance of the internet and the proper way to use it is required if you don’t want to get sucked into it’s web (excuse the pun) of dependancy and addiction.

“It (the internet) is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master”

— Nicholas Carr

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