Brains On Computers

There has been a rash of articles lately bewailing how internet technology is destroying our ability to think, many of them by or about Nicholas Carr, who is currently hyping a book on the topic. (Beware the author who is hyping the “sky is falling” book; he has a financial interest in getting you good and scared.) This is the latest in a long series of panics about how new media is taking society to hell in a handbasket. In the 1950s, it was comic books that were corrupting American youth. In the 1970s it was television that was turning our brains into squash. In the 1980s and 90s it was video games that were to blame for all of society’s ills. In the last decade it was PowerPoint. Now it’s the internet. I’ll bet there were those in the sixteenth century who said the printed book would be the downfall of western civilization.

Cognitive linguist Stephen Pinker recently published a useful counterargument to this latest scare as a New York Times op-ed piece. He points out that the argument that “experience rewires the brain” is trivial. Of course our brain “rewires” itself with every new experience. That’s how our brains work. 

I recall when people were in a panic because they thought texting would ruin teenagers ability to write coherent sentences and paragraphs. Linguists actually looked at the situation and discovered quite the opposite. Those teens that texted the most were more likely to score higher on tests of verbal ability. (Why this is the case is not known, but it is likely a correlative rather than causative effect—teens with high verbal abilities are probably more attracted to texting as a form of communication than those who are not.)

That is not to say that there aren’t problems in adapting to new technologies. Multitasking is a myth. We can’t drive and talk on the phone at the same time, at least not safely. And if we interrupt our work every time a new email is delivered, we’ll never get anything done. But that means we should turn off the mobile phone when we’re driving and we should only check email periodically at scheduled times during the work day, not abandon mobiles or email altogether. But that’s a matter of adjusting our habits so we master the technology instead of it mastering us.

There are a lot of schlocky comic books, and then there is R. Crumb. There is mindless television like Fear Factor, and there is The Wire. There are really bad PowerPoint presentations, and then there are those delivered at any scientific conference you care to attend. (Last I checked, the pace of scientific innovation hasn’t slowed since the advent of PowerPoint.) The problem isn’t the internet, it’s what we choose to communicate over it and how we organize and use the information we get from it.

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