"Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else." -Leonardo da Vinci
I recently read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The premise is that “tools of the mind” can literally reroute our neural pathways. Early examples of this include maps altering our capacity for spatial visualization, clocks removing us from the natural flow of time, and the alphabet replacing oral traditions. We are in the midst of a massive shift in the way we read — moving from print to online.
The internet is expanding and disrupting nearly every facet of our lives, from our cars to our relationships. The benefits of modern technology are innumerable. But I find that especially as a programmer, I rarely stop to ask the question: what do we stand to lose? It isn’t surprising that the internet affects writers’ content, our memory, and even our culture. But what did surprise me about reading The Shallows, was how little thought I’d given to the importance of what I let slip away every time I go online.
There has long been a tension between the technology and the pastoral ideal. American Transcendentalists and English Romantics believed in enlightenment through contemplation and introspection, while many of today’s leading tech companies would argue that the key to intellectual progress is efficiency of information exchange. With online reading, we see a stream of headlines, jump from link to link, and spend just seconds glancing at each Snapchat, Tweet, and Facebook status. Our neural circuits for scanning and skimming are strengthening as we scroll. But have your noticed yourself getting distracted when you try to concentrate for a long period of time? I used to read for hours without noticing the passage of time, and now I find myself itching to check my phone after a few pages. In the age of the internet and social media, it is hard to strike a balance between multitasking and making time for critical thinking and reflection.
A newer, related debate is that of Computationalism vs. Humanism. Computationalism asserts that “the brain is a sort of organic computer, and the mind is like software that runs on the brain” (Gelernter, Tides of Minds). Many people believe that with the right programming and a fast enough computer, we could build a conscious mind. Carr argues that a human brain will always be distinguishable from artificial intelligence because of how we process memories. A computer can immediately save information to its memory, while biological memory continues to process after information is received. For a memory to persist, it must be associated with existing memories. The richness and character of a memory comes from its contingency — it exists in time. When we reconsolidate a memory, it gains a new context. The influx of competing messages online not only overloads our working memory, but inhibits the process of consolidation. When we start using the internet as a substitute for personal memory, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.
“Our growing dependence on the Web’s info stores may in fact be the byproduct of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock info into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.” - The Shallows
Most amazing to me is that unlike a computer, our brain never reaches a point at which experiences can no longer be committed to memory – the brain cannot be full. Long term memory expands and contracts with almost unlimited elasticity, thanks to the brain’s ability to continually adjust the strength of synaptic connections. As we build up our personal store of memories, our minds become sharper.
“Of all the sacrifices we make when we devote ourselves to the Internet as our universal medium, the greatest is likely to be the wealth of connections within our own minds. The brain’s connections don’t merely provide access to a memory, they in many ways constitute memories.” – Ari Schulman
While I don’t plan to give up search engines or online news as a result of reading this book, I think the long-term effects of the internet deserve our consideration. We can all be conscious of which tasks we delegate to computers, and choose to leave them out of our most human pursuits.
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“What makes us most human is what is least computable about us – the connections between our mind and body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy.” - The Shallows