The internet is making us more adaptable, not dumber
I’m looking at a series of pictures by the photographer Robbie Cooper, and they’re making me think about computers, the cyber world, and our changing relationship with reality.
They’re from a book called Alter Ego – a project in which Cooper travelled the world taking pictures of people alongside their ‘avatars’ – the images they construct for themselves in cyberspace games like World of Warcraft and Everquest.
Some of them are funny, like the skinny kid who appears as a superhero or the obese boy whose avatar is a Viking-like warrior – and some of them make you wonder what’s the point, such as the woman whose avatar looks exactly like her - but one pair of images really stays with me.
It’s the little boy in an oxygen mask, with stick-like, atrophied arms and hands resting on foam support cushions, next to the image of a menacing figure in full space armour.
It tells a story without words, and it’s a story of liberation – a child whose life has been expanded by the ability to travel to new (even if imaginary) places, and experience a world outside his room.
There’s a battle raging at the moment among the internet literati about what being connected to the web is doing to us – to our social habits, and even to our brains.
Back in 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which summed up the fears of many of the internet doomsayers .
“Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
Now Carr has a new book, The Shallows, which expands on the ideas of his essay, though as some have complained it does not expand very much.
He argues most explosively that recent discoveries in neural psychology suggest that the internet is literally rewiring our brains. The result: a distracted, fidgety, addiction to picking up small pieces of information before clicking on to the next thing; and an inability to concentrate for very long on more substantial work.
This is a superficially seductive argument, but it’s already meeting a backlash from some of the people who actually study brains.
For instance, the Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who wrote recently that: “Cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience”.
I can’t claim to be entirely dispassionate about this: I’ve wasted as much time on the internet as anyone. I have a Twitter feed and a Facebook account, and I have to be careful to ration myself in their use, for fear of getting little done.
But reviewing my own use of Twitter, for instance, I find that a relatively high proportion of what I link to consists of lengthy magazine or newspaper articles. I read an essay or a long article from ‘Arts and Letters Daily’ or ‘New York Review of Books’ most days of the week.
I read newspapers from around the world, and the free content from weighty magazines like the New Yorker and The Atlantic. Yes, I do read far fewer novels than I used to, but that’s at least partly because I have to read a lot of non-fiction in research for interviews on ‘PM’.
I really find it hard to detect a breakdown in my ability to concentrate or give a subject sustained attention.
In the nineteen forties and fifties, comic books and rock music were going to turn the young into juvenile delinquents. In the sixties, when I was growing up, television was going to rot our brains. Now it seems that the producers of television and the other main stream media are worried that the young aren’t consuming enough of them.
Well, no, but that’s because the next generation have started to see media, not as a box that squirts out content, but as a two way transaction – a field in which they can contribute as well as just receive.
The most ubiquitous example would have to be Wikipedia – an encyclopaedia created by anyone who wants to contribute to it, constantly changing and updating. It’s certainly got its flaws – it’s a lot more comprehensive on the plot and cast of ‘Lost’, say, than it is about the poetry of John Donne – but it’s generally in a constant state of improvement. This is Web 2.0, and it’s changing our world.
Famously, in 1876, the president of Western Union turned down a chance to buy the patent on the telephone from Alexander Graham Bell; “it was “nothing but a toy”, he said.
If there’s one thing we should have learned from the explosion of telecommunication – mobile phones, email, skype, all forms of social media – it is that human beings want to talk to each other, want to communicate, want to share. So I incline to the optimist’s side in the debate about the web: the side championed by the theorist Clay Shirky.
He says he’s an optimist for the most rational reason - because optimism has generally been proved right: “If we took the loopiest, most moonbeam-addled Californian utopian internet bullshit, and held it up against the most cynical, realpolitik-inflected scepticism, the Californian bullshit would still be a better predictor of the future. Which is to say that, if in 1994 you’d wanted to understand what our lives would be like right now, you’d still be better off reading a single copy of Wired magazine published in that year than all of the sceptical literature published ever since.”
You can watch Clay Shirky talk about his book, The Cognitive Surplus, here.
It’ll take thirteen minutes of your time, uninterrupted by twittering, email, or facebook. I expect you’ll manage. It’s worth it.
And you can see more of Robbie Copper’s work at his website www.robbiecooper.org
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