In Comes Google, Out Goes the Mind
The first time I felt uneasy about the “black box,” my first laptop computer, was when my friend Raymond, a self-taught programmer, started tapping nervously on the keyboard, bringing out flashes of information on the screen. This was hardly human behavior. Either Ray had lost his mind or this was his way of relaxing his tight nerves.
Just Another Technological Discovery?
It is common knowledge that civilization adapts to technology and that modern inventions deeply affect human behaviors. It is easy indeed to see the change in culture produced by the various modifications of human language alone, that vital vehicle of thought. Major changes occurred, for example: from the unwritten story of blind Homer, who could remember a 20,000 line Illiad, to the same poem couched on papyrus 700 years later as a written text in scriptura continua “withnobreakandallinone”; continuing changes occurred from the uninterrupted text, to the separate words and sentences; and further changes continued from the hand-written manuscripts, to Guttenberg’s printed books. Man’s mind has certainly gone through new modes of thinking and processing words as human language became fixed, perfected, and multiplied indefinitely. Can we say the same of the latest human invention, the Internet? A 2010 New York Times Best Seller, The Shallows, written by Nicholas Carr (W. W. Norton and Cy, New York), squarely addresses the question.
One of the first modern computer experiments was shown at Xerox’s Research Center of Palo Alto in the mid-1970s. The presenter demonstrated the flexibility of the system of “multitasking” by having several windows on the screen. On one of them, he was composing software code. He then clicked on another which displayed a newly arrived e-mail message. He quickly read and replied to the message, then hopped back to the programming window and continued working. While most of the audience applauded warmly the feat, someone angrily exclaimed, “Why in the world would you want to be interrupted—and distracted—by e-mail while programming?”
This is a question few teenagers will ever raise today. “I click, therefore, I am” is their motto and, incidentally, the cause of much stress. Teens and young adults need to know details of the lives of their peers, coupled with a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop. If they stop sending messages, they risk becoming invisible. That is why, in 2010, the average teenager was spending more than 11 hours a day connected to some social media.
The advocates of the Web praise it for its ability to “conduct 34 conversations simultaneously across six different media.” They hope that this “technology-induced ADD” will develop new cognitive habits…“to navigate the age of constant connectivity.” Leaving room for the hyperbolic twist, there is little doubt that the average computer user is beginning to function like a PC, categorizing and assessing bits of information, with speed and disorder. In this jungle law of the “survival of the busiest” brain cells, the battle is lost by those cells that support linear thought, the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we contemplate things.
Deep Mind Boggling
Carr’s best seller is riddled with brain studies on neurons and synapses which are as revealing as they are intriguing. We learn that the nervous system is endowed with great plasticity which allows it to adapt to behavior and environment. But plasticity does not mean elasticity. The paths of least resistance become the vital paths, and they tend to lock us into a rigid behavior, crossing the point of no return. It can have pathological repercussions, with some unsweetened names like depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, if one were to set out to invent a medium that would drastically rewire our mental circuits, one would probably end up designing something like the Internet. Repetitive, interactive, addictive stimuli will produce rapid alterations in brain circuits. Chemical changes will become anatomical changes. Said simply: they create different brains.
Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. What we’re not doing when we’re online has also a momentous impact. It stifles the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, devoted to quiet reflection and contemplation. The circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain has to recycle the disused synapses for more pressing work.
And what is this work more pressing than thinking and reading? Book readers have a lot of activity in regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing, but little activity associated with decision making and problem solving. Experienced Net users, by contrast, display extensive activity across the brain region of the prefrontal cortex when they search Web pages. The need to evaluate links and make navigational choices, while sustaining fleeting sensory stimuli (photos, videos, moving items), requires steady mental coordination and decision making. This is distracting the brain from the plain interpreting of a text. To understand the juggling this involves, just imagine reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.
At that moment, another problem is added which impairs proper thinking. The short-term memory, called working memory, can suffer from overload. If this occurs, we become unable to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, and thus we turn into a virtual zombie. Now, it is notorious that two of the most important sources of overload are extraneous problem-solving and divided attention, two central features of the Net. And, to top it all, some say that brain overtaxing is connected with ADD.
The Conditions for Deep Thinking?
The art of book reading is dwindling. Proper readers, a species in danger of extinction, would disengage their attention from the passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. The reading of a sequence of pages is valuable not only for the knowledge they acquired from the author’s words. These very words also set off their minds to prolong the process, to connect with images and work out the imagination and past experiences and analogies, and, finally, to create their own ideas and inferences. Adept readers think deeply as they read deeply.
For deep thinking, it is also known that getting away from the problem, taking a walk in the woods and “sleeping over it,” allows the brain to become calmer and sharper. This is because the brain can relax and disengage without taxing the working memory. Contemplation and peace are vital as they rejuvenate the cells and prepare them for the next mental exercise.
Scientist Nielsen conducted an eye-tracking study of Web users in order to study the way the average online reader reads. The results were staggering. The vast majority skimmed the text quickly, their eyes skipping down the page in a pattern that resembled the letter F. F is for fast. In a few seconds the users read your precious content and move on after an average of four seconds per page! Users, including the academic researchers, are “power-browsing” and are going for quick wins. They do not read in the traditional sense. Quantity is gained at the expense of quality, and, paradoxically, the broadening of available information is leading to a narrowing of science.
Finally, the provisional nature of digital text is fast influencing writing styles. A printed book is a finished product. Most conscientious writers were anxious to perfect the works they produced with an eye towards eternity. Electronic text is subject to ongoing revision: it becomes cheap in more ways than one. This is best illustrated by the history of correspondence in the last 30 years. In letter writing, formality and eloquence have been sacrificed to Chronos—the god of time.
Tool of Forgetfulness
What determines what we remember? The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. For a memory to persist the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. This means attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with something already stored in the memory. If unable to attend to it, the information lasts as long as the neuron’s electric charge: a few seconds at best. But the Net users want to be entertained “in real time,” and want to be interrupted right now. It may not be wrong to conclude with Carr that “the Web makes our brains adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.”
Socrates prophesied the advent of a tool to “implant forgetfulness, a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.” Google co-founder Sergey Brin stated: “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.”
This point deserves a second thought. Would we really be better off without our personal memory? While surfing the web, we are sacrificing the wealth of connections within our own mind which, chemically but also anatomically, produce the synapses and physically build up memory. Online users do not gain memory the way deep readers and thinkers do, they only gain access to an electronic outside memory. The Web’s connections are not our connections. The thoughts, unless properly processed, are not our thoughts and will never define us. Richard Foreman eloquently explained the stakes:
“I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal was the complex, dense and ‘cathedral-like’ structure of the highly educated and articulate personality. I see within us a new kind of self, evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available.’ We are drained of our ‘inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance and risk turning into pancake people.’ ”
Google founder Larry Page, in a 2007 conference to scientists, expressed his view of human life and human intellect:
“My theory is that if you look at your programming, your DNA, it’s about 600 megabytes compressed, so it’s smaller than any modern operating system, smaller than Linux of Windows… So your program algorithms probably aren’t that complicated: [intelligence] is probably more about overall computation.”
To him, the brain does not just resemble a computer; it is a computer. For Google, intelligence is the faculty of processing data, and we are approaching the “happy” day when the machine will create intelligence. Google’s dream is perhaps simply a boyish desire to create a cool machine that will be able to outthink its creators. However, the problem lies deeper. It consists of the dwarf conception of what a man is, with his depth of thought, creativity and emotion, and human decisions which define him.
Some say Google is God. Others say Google is Satan. On this theological note, Marshall McLuhan, the man who prophesied the advent of the Web and coined the aphorism “the medium is the message,” had this to say of the electronic world: “It nourishes the illusion that the world is a spiritual substance, a reasonable facsimile of the Mystical Body, an absorbing manifestation of the antichrist. After all, the Prince of this world is a great electronic engineer.”
One scientist tested the relation between multitasking and creativity and inventiveness. The results were clear. The more you multitask, the less deliberative and able you are to reason out a problem. Once you face the screen, you are hard pressed to think outside the box. The constant shifting of your attention when online hampers your ability to think deeply and creatively. Internauts are shallow thinkers because they have no time to challenge incoming ideas. As a rule, one is never as good as when he focuses on one thing at a time, or, in the word of Seneca: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
Another Latin poet, Lucretius, seemed to have had the Net users in mind when he wrote: “They taste from the mouth of others; they search things from hearsay rather than from their own senses.” Being in the clutches of the spider’s Web, we utterly disconnect from the outer world. This is bound to alter the behavior since what is most human is what is least computable about us, that is to say, connections between our mind and our body, experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy. And such things cannot happen in a flash time. “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states.” Frenzied technology feeds frenzied souls, and frenzied souls can hardly be acting humanly.
It is certain that the Net era is seeing profound revolutionary changes in man’s behavior. The challenge we face is to preserve our human personality, created in the image of God and redeemed by Christ. The Net challenge is to not sacrifice our own souls on the altar of the new god of utter distraction, forgetfulness, and mindlessness.