Book Festival: Is The Internet Making Us Stupid?

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Nicholas Carr, Chair Susan Deacon
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Nicholas Carr came prominently to public attention with his article ‘Is Google making Us Stupid?’ He has, in fact been studying and commenting on the state of the internet since its inception. Carr is no merchant of gloom; he is a staunch proponent of the uses of new technologies.

Like many of us, he does have qualms, however, and his most recent book, ‘The Shallows’ is a statement of some of these. It’s now estimated that at least some of us are spending 40% of our time online. Carr’s twenty year stint at IT’s coal face has led him to the conclusion that we may have too idealistic a view of new technology, and the people who have developed the tools we use.

He cites Wikipedia, a number of whose entries are sloppy, where they haven’t been deliberately doctored.

Carr’s concern goes beyond fear for the future of our collective intellectual history, pointing to a growing abstraction as we surf the web, spending less than ten seconds on any page. We have become so used to immediacy that we demand it and have no patience with what demands our time and concentration.

Deep reading, Carr contends, is becoming less common. This implies an alteration quite literally in the way we think. We now know that our brains are not, as previously believed, ‘fixed’ at an early age, but remain ‘plastic’ throughout our lives. This is essential for our survival and capacity to adapt, but it also suggests that repetition is key to reinforcement of behaviours. The more we do something, the easier it becomes. Thus far, thus fairly obvious, but it also leads to ‘addictive’ or ‘compulsive’ behaviour which we come to rely on for our sense of well-being and personal validation. For all these reasons, changes in behaviour are not readily reversible.

What changes in our behaviour has the web brought about? The web allows us to act in ways which stimulate behaviour of repetition and manipulation – we are rewarded for using it. Our visual sense is rewarded, while our need for connection in an increasingly fragmented society is catered for through Facebook and other social networking. It is, however, easy and painless to ‘unfriend’ those who do not conform to our preferences or ruffle our prejudices.

It is neurologically demonstrable that heavy use of the internet can alter our behaviour and hence our brain patterns. Skimming and surfing may become the dominant mode of information gathering and web media may present a more appealing world than the one we actually inhabit.

Carr argues that reliance on web information hampers our ability to think deeply and critically. The counter point to his thesis, however, is to recognise that at one time cinema was predicted to replace theatre, television likewise, and both have been predicted to be eclipsed by the net (as have books). New technologies will always gain some market share at the expense of former media, and have the potential to alter how we see the world. The extent they manage to achieve this, however, is often less than imagined.

Is the Internet Making Us Stupid? was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday 28 August