Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The internet ate my brain. I think.

The Economist has a quick review of Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. The gist is that the constant context-switching involved in web surfing is "already damaging the long-term memory consolidation that is the basis for true intelligence."

That "already" -- the reviewer's term and not necessarily Carr's -- is a telling bit of boiler plate, adding a bit of urgency in suggesting that this is the beginning of a long-term trend that will surely rot our brains completely before we know it.

Knee-jerk skepticism:
  • Just how much do we know actually about "the long-term memory consolidation that is the basis for true intelligence", or "true intelligence" for that matter?
  • Suppose we can show that, when web surfing, our brains behave in some sort of inattentive, scattered mode. Does that mean that we've lost the ability to think in any other mode, or just that that's how we think when we're surfing?
  • If the web is rotting our brains by changing our patterns of thought, is there a corresponding change in, say, the rate of technical innovation (by some reasonably objective measure)?
  • More subjectively, the has there been a change in the culture? My understanding is that contemporary culture is vapid, cheap and degraded and that things were much better in our parents' day. If so, that represents exactly zero change from fifty, or a hundred, or a thousand years ago.
  • Returning to that "already" above, assuming that there is some sort of measurable effect, is it the beginning of a trend, the end of some sort of adjustment period, a temporary blip or what?
Of course, this is just an off-the-cuff reaction to someone's review of a book that I've not read a word of -- which possibly serves to support Carr's original point.

Many years ago I was sitting in the living room of a house I lived in when a roommate from Europe wandered in and, seeing I was flipping through channels, asked if anything was on. This was back when European TV typically had way fewer channels than a US cable setup. Without thinking, I started going through the channels in order, at a steady beat of one every couple of seconds, narrating as I went: "That's baseball ... that's just bad videos and commercials ... I've seen that episode already ... that guy's just obnoxious ... that's just Gilligan's Island" The roommate's jaw steadily dropped. "How can you know all that just from a second or two?"

A fair question, but the sad truth is that once you've been through a selection of several dozen channels a few times too many, it becomes all too familiar. Sometimes just the channel number is enough, sometimes it's easy to recognize a face or a setting.

To me, the disquieting bit was not that my brain could pick up cues from previous experience that quickly. That particular circuitry has obvious survival value and has doubtless been in our wiring in some form or another for a good long time. The disquieting bit was that I had the information in my head to retrieve in the first place. I'd obviously spent enough time planted in front of the TV to recognize Bob Denver on sight. With all due respect to the late Mr. Denver, that's not necessarily a happy realization.

Was TV changing the way I processed information, or had my TV watching skewed the information I had on hand to process? Maybe both?

And thus has a quick throwaway post morphed into a not-quite-so-quick rumination on the nature of memory. Am I supposed to have the attention span to still be writing and revising this, or was I supposed to have quit after the first 140 characters?

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