Losing our minds to the web

An influential new American book claims that the internet is damaging teenagers’ brains and our ability to think. But the web’s real dangers lurk elsewhere.

By Evgeny Morozov.

In 1889 the Spectator published an article, “The Intellectual Effects of Electricity,” intended to provoke its Victorian readers. Robert Cecil, the prime minister, had recently given a speech to the Institution of Electrical Engineers in which “he admitted that only the future could prove whether the effect of the discovery of electricity… would tell for good or evil.” The authors attacked him for being soft on electricity. Its material effects were welcome—“imagine the hundred million of ploughing oxen now toiling in Asia, with their labour superseded by electric accumulators!”—but its intellectual effects were not.

Electricity had led to the telegraph, which in turn saw “a vast diffusion of what is called ‘news,’ the recording of every event, and especially of every crime.” Foreshadowing Marshall McLuhan by almost a century, the magazine deplored a world that was “for purposes of ‘intelligence’ reduced to a village” in which “a catastrophe caused by a jerry-builder of New York wakes in two hours the sensation of pity throughout the civilised world.” And while “certainly it increases nimbleness of mind… it does this at a price. All men are compelled to think of all things, at the same time, on imperfect information, and with too little interval for reflection.”

Fast forward 120 years, and similar criticisms abound. Consider an anti-Twitter lament by the New Yorker writer George Packer in February, published, of all places, on his blog: “There’s no way for readers to be online, surfing, emailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world.” In May, even the US president Barack Obama—a self-confessed BlackBerry addict—complained about a “24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank all that high on the truth meter,” adding that: “With iPods and iPads… information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment.” Of course there is a price to pay for processing information. But the real question is: is the price too high?

Enter Nicholas Carr, a technology writer and Silicon Valley’s favourite contrarian, whose book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton) has just come out in the US (and will be published in Britain by Atlantic in September). It is an expanded version of an essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” printed in the Atlantic magazine in 2008, which struck a chord with several groups. Those worrying about Google’s growing hold on our culture felt Carr was justified in going after it (though there was little about the search giant in the article). Those concerned with the accelerating rhythm of modern life, the dispersion of attention, and information overload—all arguably made worse by the internet—found a new ally. Those concerned with the trivialisation of intellectual life by blogs, tweets, and YouTube videos of cats also warmed to Carr’s message. Online magazine Slate has already compared The Shallows to Silent Spring, the 1962 book by Rachel Carson that helped launch the environmental movement… Read More>>

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