Sunday, November 6, 2011

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains The Shallows

This week for my Technology, Culture and Learning Class, we read the book “What the Internet is Doing to our Brains: The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr.  In the first chapter I loved how Carr explained his first experience with a personal computer.  It was interesting to read his journey through this process and how quickly the technology changed.  I especially enjoyed when Carr said that he “grew fond of the sound of my modem connecting through the phone lines to the AOL servers.” (Carr, 14).  I used to dread the sound of the modem connecting to the internet servers because it would take so long. 
Also, the idea that AOL allotted only a certain number of hours, five hours to be exact, to surf the web is unbelievable.  I use the world wide web for all sorts of things.  Personally, I use it to stay updated on current events, directions, communicate with family and friends, shopping, and even listing to music or watching movies.  For school and work I use the internet for research and homework, communicating with co-workers and classmates, ordering equipment and supplies.  Just like Carr, I no longer read newspapers.  I also do not use phonebooks, because sometimes the information is outdated and it is much easier to look online for a company’s information.  Plus, their website has much more information than the phonebook provides.  After viewing a company’s website I may not need to contact them, because the information I need may already be on their website.
Carr’s description of Michael Merzenich’s post doctorial work on brain mapping at the University of Wisconsin Madison was quite insightful.  I found Merzenich’s work on the brain’s reaction when the peripheral nerve system is damaged and then how it heals interesting.  How the nerves grew back haphazardly and signals were crossed but later after some recovery time this confusion has been cleared up.  This contradicts what was mentioned in the earlier part of the chapter in Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s (Spanish physician, neuroanatomist, and noble laureate) belief that the brain’s virtual path once laid out cannot be changed, regenerated, or rerouted. 
I do agree with Carr in how we have changed the way we use technology.  It has changed from just information based to more of enhancing conceptual thinking.  In the Chapter entitled “Tools of the Mind” Carr, this discusses this very idea, “Our ancestors didn’t develop or a use map in order to enhance their capacity to conceptual thinking or to bring the world’s hidden structures to light.  Nor did they manufacture mechanical clocks to spur the adoption of a more scientific mode of thinking.” (Carr, 45).
Technological determinism, a term invented by sociologist Thorstein Veblen, is a theory that a society's technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values.  On the antithesis instrumentalism is the belief that “tools to be neutral artifacts, entirely subservient to the conscious wishes of their users.  Our instruments are the means we use to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own,” (Carr, 45).  I think both of these theories are true and Carr gives great examples in his book.  In regards to instrumentalists, we do make decisions on how and when we use our technological tools.  “The Japanese, looking to preserve the traditional samurai culture effectively banned the use of firearms in their country for two centuries.” (Carr, 47).  On the flipside determislists believing that technology drives our society provide a great example of how clocks changed the way society worked, “bells sounded for start of work, meal breaks, end of work, closing gates, start of market, close of market, assembly, emergencies, council meetings, end of drink service, time for street cleaning, curfew, and so on.” (Carr, 42).
Carr insists that the negative side effects of the Internet outweigh its efficiencies, stating that we are only getting fragmented information from the web. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web…we don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.”   I do not necessary agree with this point of view.  The good thing about the internet is that we have much more information at our fingertips then we without the internet.  For example, if I was reading an article and I was not sure what the definition of a certain word meant or who a person mentioned in the article was, I could be missing important information that could help me understand the article better.  However, if read the same article online, I could pause look the word up or even “Google” the person and find out some background information on the person to help me better understand.  Now, I understand that this is one of Carr’s points when he talks about being distracted, but in this particularly case I think it is enhancing my learning and not distracting from it.  “We want to be interrupted, because each interruption brings us a valuable piece of information.” (Carr, 133). 
“Studies of office workers who use computers reveal that they constantly stop what they are doing to read and respond to e-mails.” (Carr 132)  As a person who works in an office, I chose whether to check an e-mail notification or not.  Usually, if I check an e-mail it is because I am waiting on a response for a question or project I may have.  However, this is not the only interruption I have throughout the day, I have phone calls, meetings and people constantly stopping me to ask for assistance or ask me a question.  Unfortunately, multitasking is in every workplace and is something we must be able to adapt to in order to do our jobs.
Another point can be made is that are we limiting the information we receive?  One of Carr’s arguments from a study on over 34 million academic articles published between 1945 and 2005 by James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago.  Found that after analyzing citations from published online articles, scholars cited fewer articles.   Also, mentioned in the study that older issues of articles were not being cited as much as newer articles.  Now, this point I can understand.  We do want the most recent information when we are researching, the information in an older article could already be outdated and no longer useful.  “automated information-filtering tools, such as search engines, tend to serve as amplifiers of popularity, quickly establishing and then continually reinforcing a consensus about what information is important and what isn’t.” (Carr 217). 
I can also see some validity to Carr’s ideas on the internet and how it is changing our thinking process.  Take for example Carr’s own description of his concentration, “I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.” Carr writes, “That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, being looking for something else to do.  I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.  The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” (Carr 5-6). 
Another point I found interesting was when Carr spoke about the change in our reading, and how this would also impact a change in our writing style.  He mentioned how Japanese women begin writing stories as text messages on their cell phones and uploaded them to a Web site.  These stories were later published as books and became very popular.  One reason given by one of the author’s on why young readers have abandoned novels “They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and difficult to understand, and the stories are not familiar to them.” (Carr 105).  I found this comment to very discerning, but if you put it into context these type of stories were love stories, which I would view as purely entertainment.  If this was a research based article or book then I would be even more concerned.
Our society is always looking for the latest and greatest ways to improve and make things more efficient.  It seems like with every new technology we have had in history we have always had people who are going to adopt this new technology or people who feel with new technology comes new problems. 

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff Lisa! It's actually becoming scary, because the older I get the less I use tools from the past (notepads, hard copy books,etc) and find myself using more technology. Not out of necessity, but because of convenience.