Is The Internet Making People Dumber... Or Is Nick Carr Reminiscing For Days That Never Existed

from the go-read-a-book dept

Well, you had to know this was coming. With the release of Nick Carr's latest book, The Shallows -- basically an extended riff on his silly and easily debunked article from The Atlantic a few years ago -- Carr is now getting plenty of press coverage for his claims. However, like Jaron Lanier before him, this seems like yet another case of Carr pining for the good old days that never existed. As I've pointed out in the past, I think Carr is a brilliant writer, and a deep thinker, who is quite good at pulling interesting nuggets out of a diverse set of information. What I find absolutely infuriating about him, however, is that he lays down this cobblestone path of brilliance, making good point backed up by evidence, followed by good point backed up by evidence... and then at the end, after you're all sucked in, he makes a logical leap for which there is no actual support. He seems to do this over and over again, and his latest effort appears to be the same thing yet again.

The Wall Street Journal is running a bit of a "debate" between Carr and Clay Shirky, who each have books out, which seem to suggest the exact opposite things. So the two of them each address the question of whether or not the internet is making us dumb. Carr's column does a nice job highlighting a variety of studies that show that too much multitasking means you don't concentrate very much on anything. Except... that seems a bit tautological, doesn't it? The "key study" that he highlighted shows that "heavy multitaskers" did poorly on certain cognitive tests. But it fails to say which direction the causal relationship goes in. It could be that those who don't do well in certain cognitive areas are more likely to spend their time multitasking, for example, since they get less enjoyment from bearing down on a single piece of information.

And, unfortunately, there's lots of evidence to suggest that Carr is very clearly misreading the evidence he presents in his book. Jonah Lehrer at the NY Times, in his review of Carr's book, highlights this point:
What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to "marked increases in the speed of information processing." One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just 10 days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent first-person shooter game, subjects showed dramatic increases in ­visual attention and memory.

Carr's argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a "book-like text." Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn't making us stupid -- it's exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter.
So the science doesn't actually agree with what Carr says it does. Then all that he's left with is the claim that, because of the internet, fewer people are reading books... and that's somehow "bad." This isn't based on any evidence, mind you. It's just based on Carr saying it's bad:
It is revealing, and distressing, to compare the cognitive effects of the Internet with those of an earlier information technology, the printed book. Whereas the Internet scatters our attention, the book focuses it. Unlike the screen, the page promotes contemplativeness.

Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. The innate bias of the human brain, after all, is to be distracted. Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what's going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we'd overlook a nearby source of food.

To read a book is to practice an unnatural process of thought. It requires us to place ourselves at what T. S. Eliot, in his poem "Four Quartets," called "the still point of the turning world." We have to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter our instinctive distractedness, thereby gaining greater control over our attention and our mind.

It is this control, this mental discipline, that we are at risk of losing as we spend ever more time scanning and skimming online.
This makes two important assumptions. First, that reading a book is somehow the absolute pinnacle of information consumption. There is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, in Shirky's response piece, he notes similar misguided concerns about how mass-market books would make us dumber:
In the history of print, we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals, and complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, "The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing." Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, "The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information."
But, as Shirky points out, society adapts. Each new technology brings along some good uses and some bad, but society, as a whole, seems to adapt to promote the good uses, such that they greatly outweigh the bad uses.

The second assumption that Carr falsely makes, of course, is that our internet time is taking away from our reading time. But, as Shirky notes in his piece and his book, it seems like our internet time is more about taking away from TV time (remember TV?), and thus is allowing us to be more interactive and do more socially useful things with our time than just vegging out:
First, the rosy past of the pessimists was not, on closer examination, so rosy. The decade the pessimists want to return us to is the 1980s, the last period before society had any significant digital freedoms. Despite frequent genuflection to European novels, we actually spent a lot more time watching "Diff'rent Strokes" than reading Proust, prior to the Internet's spread. The Net, in fact, restores reading and writing as central activities in our culture.

The present is, as noted, characterized by lots of throwaway cultural artifacts, but the nice thing about throwaway material is that it gets thrown away. This issue isn't whether there's lots of dumb stuff online--there is, just as there is lots of dumb stuff in bookstores. The issue is whether there are any ideas so good today that they will survive into the future. Several early uses of our cognitive surplus, like open source software, look like they will pass that test.

The past was not as golden, nor is the present as tawdry, as the pessimists suggest, but the only thing really worth arguing about is the future. It is our misfortune, as a historical generation, to live through the largest expansion in expressive capability in human history, a misfortune because abundance breaks more things than scarcity. We are now witnessing the rapid stress of older institutions accompanied by the slow and fitful development of cultural alternatives. Just as required education was a response to print, using the Internet well will require new cultural institutions as well, not just new technologies.
Oh, and as was noted well over a year ago, after decades upon decades of people reading fewer books (mainly because of TV), recently, it turns out that people are actually reading more books -- entirely contrary to Carr's entire thesis.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Jun 7th, 2010 @ 8:13am

    Question

    What's better, reading this guys book or reading Wikipedia?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 8:18am

    and much of the time spent on the Internet people read stuff and they write their own stuff and respond to what they read, which is 100 times better than simply reading, not to mention people now have more access to books they can order online or creative commons and other books that people release for free over the Internet.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 8:18am

    I don't think the internet makes people dumb. I think it just makes dumb behavior more apparent. The anonymity encourages a more baseless and speculative discussion in casual chatting than most people are comfortable delivering face to face.

    Getting laughed at for a dumb statement in person hurts, but apparently people don't mind getting laughed at as much online.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
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    johnjac (profile), Jun 7th, 2010 @ 8:20am

    Book Burning also on a decline

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    iamtheky (profile), Jun 7th, 2010 @ 8:24am

    Not that I think its making us dumber but using the google study is equally ridiculous.

    Its widely accepted that the more complicated the task the more the is used.

    so lets grab 55-76 year olds, 24 of them, and make them google stuff while laying in an MRI. Then lets compare that to those same people reading a book in the MRI and see which one has greater activity.

    Or you could have just asked any rational person which one is going frustrate grandma more.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
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    Sneeje (profile), Jun 7th, 2010 @ 8:28am

    Re:

    Good point. I mean think about it, what format does a classroom setting follow when studying a book? You read it, then DISCUSS it in the class. How is interacting on the Internet any different? People are reading and absorbing information and then attempting to gain deeper understanding through discourse.

    Yes, there is a lot of chaff, and many people are not seeking understanding, only yelling, but Carr's claim doesn't pass the smell test.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
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    chris (profile), Jun 7th, 2010 @ 8:38am

    Re: Book Burning also on a decline

    the internet makes the solution to all problems obvious:

    http://art.penny-arcade.com/photos/888884039_umVwa-L.jpg

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 8:54am

    I used to read books, quite a few books, back in my time. The books were usually fiction. Then I started reading the internet.

    Now I read all kinds of things. I used to read books that were fiction but now I read everything, thanks to the internet.

    I've done more reading (and writing!) in the past decade than I had previously, reading books that were fiction.

    I enjoy reading factual news articles. But I guess I'm getting dumber because I don't passively sit there and read some fantasy novel, like I used to.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 8:58am

    Re: Re:

    "and many people are not seeking understanding"

    But these people won't be seeking understanding regardless, even without the Internet, so they are probably better off interacting on the Internet (which teaches them how to better express themselves and understand the expressions of others who would otherwise correct their misunderstandings and perhaps think negatively of them for misunderstanding) than watching television. Not to mention the Internet has a much larger variety of content meaning that everyone has more specialized knowledge over different subjects and so the scope of any populations knowledge as a whole is wider because now everyone knows different things instead of everyone knowing the same thing that they watch on television, most of which is useless nonsense T.V. shows.

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 9:02am

    Re:

    What people can charge for on the Internet (which is already being done) are interactive classrooms where a professor teachers content on some subject, anyone can watch, and those who pay can ask the teacher questions over the Internet during the time the professor is teaching. They don't have to be accredited classes, just classes where people want to learn a new subject.

     

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  11.  
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    hax, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 9:27am

    what a joke

    I've learned more from the internet in th past year than I learned from reading books in my whole life.

    Why should I read an entire book, of which I only remember about 5%, when I can read a quick article and retain most of it.

    I'm now able to quickly cover more information on a broader range of topics using current and accurate data and studies as opposed to some 20 year old book at the library. Carr can use books if he wants....and probably still think pluto is a planet as a result.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 9:42am

    the internet does encourage people to read more, encourages them to be information consumers. however, most people are very superficial about it, reading much and understanding little. there are plenty of readers and commenter on this blog who are more than willing to swallow the pap whole and regurgitate it. they dont consider options or other idea. they are not critical readers, accepting opinion as fact and never looking past their noses. basically, they are busy at being shallow.

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 9:45am

    Re:

    It's like looking into a mirror!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 9:49am

    So you're "multi-tasking", then it's "OMG! A pony!"

    Anyone can be distracted several ways at once. Few can focus on a single task for hours, and almost no one can in presence of distractions. That's why the late Michael Crichton locked himself in his writing room and had the same thing for every meal. (So I've read.) But filling your head with trivia, especially from "teh internets", isn't actually useful...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 10:33am

    NO just the last people to get intrenet are the retarded ipad owners

    NO just the last people to get intrenet are the retarded ipad owners

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Rakisak (profile), Jun 7th, 2010 @ 11:00am

    I have learned more because of the internet. The only people dumber from the internet are people that spend to much time on facebook and porn.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 11:03am

    Re:

    Yeah, because you're the only non shallow one here, right?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    interval, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 11:54am

    Re:

    I'd even give the hard core porn fans a pass if they're not wasting any time on Facebook.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
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    greenbird (profile), Jun 7th, 2010 @ 12:51pm

    Proof the internet makes people dumber

    Just read the next story about reporting chess moves being a copyright violation. That's proof enough for me right there. Or at least making lawyers dumber.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
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    greenbird (profile), Jun 7th, 2010 @ 12:53pm

    Re: Proof the internet makes people dumber

    Make that the next 2 stories.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    abc gum, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 1:53pm

    Re:

    Dear lowercase coward,

    I have taken your criticism to heart and am rejecting all your past, present and future opinions immediately. Do not take this personally, I just do not want to swallow the pap whole and regurgitate it.

    I will not consider your "ideas" as being from a critical reader.

    I'm sure you do look past your long nose, down upon others you disapprove of.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    icon
    cybernia (profile), Jun 7th, 2010 @ 2:10pm

    Your rebuttal using video games as an example actually doesn't refute what the author's claims. Playing video games isn't multi-tasking, it's concentrating on one thing.

    Also, the number of people reading books may be no greater or less than before the internet, but it has affected people's attention spans. I quite often see this response, "tldr" when someone links to an article. It means "too long, didn't read."

    As to your links to studies showing that kids have better writing skills, man do I beg to differ on that one. Reading many comment boards makes me want to "loose" my mind.

    But don't get me wrong,I love the interwebs. As an information junkie from way back, it's heaven.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Jose_X, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 6:11pm

    Re: Re: Book Burning also on a decline

    Another example of great comedic execution about a disaster!

    How might a patent claim read?

    "Claim 135: The invention of claim 122 where the juxtaposition is between one of the simplest and most addictive games of the last century against potentially one of the worst environmentally disastrous episodes of modern times."

    After the patent grant and some years have gone by, how might society be entertained by the monopolist's execution?

    "Oooh, that reminiscent-of-Russa block-like structure sure better be placed SNUGGLY down over the ******bracken lIne******.. oooh ha ha ;-D 8-P

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    identicon
    Jose_X, Jun 7th, 2010 @ 6:15pm

    Re: Re: Re: Book Burning also on a decline

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    icon
    Pat Aufderheide (profile), Jun 8th, 2010 @ 1:48pm

    Fair use can be the solution for a lot of these problems

    Sorry, we switched websites a few days ago. The new link:
    centerforsocialmedia.org/clipping
    OR
    http://centerforsocialmedia.org/fair-use/related-materials/documents/clipping-our-own-wings-copyri ght-and-creativity-communication-r
    The scholars have addressed their problem, by the way, by creating a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Scholarly Research in Communication. It'll be released June 22 at the ICA's annual conference, held this year in Singapore. It'll be at
    centerforsocialmedia.org/ica
    OR
    icahdq.org/fairuse

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    icon
    Pat Aufderheide (profile), Jun 8th, 2010 @ 1:48pm

    Fair use can be the solution for a lot of these problems

    Sorry, we switched websites a few days ago. The new link:
    centerforsocialmedia.org/clipping
    OR
    http://centerforsocialmedia.org/fair-use/related-materials/documents/clipping-our-own-wings-copyri ght-and-creativity-communication-r
    The scholars have addressed their problem, by the way, by creating a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Scholarly Research in Communication. It'll be released June 22 at the ICA's annual conference, held this year in Singapore. It'll be at
    centerforsocialmedia.org/ica
    OR
    icahdq.org/fairuse

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    icon
    TtfnJohn (profile), Jun 8th, 2010 @ 3:24pm

    Re:

    "so lets grab 55-76 year olds, 24 of them, and make them google stuff while laying in an MRI. Then lets compare that to those same people reading a book in the MRI and see which one has greater activity.

    Or you could have just asked any rational person which one is going frustrate grandma more."

    Well, as one of that group (57) I google stuff daily, quite often in fact, and it doesn't frustrate me at all. (In complete contrast to the search engines around in the early 90s when I'd have been more capable of mental gymnastics, it seems.)

    Hate to tell you this but a large number of todays grannies and granpas (so far I'm neither) are quite comfortable in front of Google.

    As comfortable as those who grew up with it? Don't think so. But frustrated, no.

    As for greater mental activity that might depend on what was being sought.

    Surfing for knowledge and understanding would probably light the MRI up more than entertainment would though I'm not prepared to bet the farm on that one!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    icon
    iamtheky (profile), Jun 9th, 2010 @ 6:04am

    Re:

    Except it was only measured in relationship to reading. I was not contending that old people are incapable of the google, just that inside the confines of an MRI they are probably much more relaxed trying to read a book than navigate the magical internet.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    a. J. Marr, Feb 25th, 2012 @ 3:11pm

    Can Shirky and Carr both have it wrong?

    If fault is to be found with Shirky and Carr, as well as almost all other internet pundits on information overload, it is in their premises, not their conclusions. Almost all hold the implicit assumption that humans are sensitive to information as static facts. However, if informed by the most recent findings from affective neuroscience on human decision making, this position cannot be true.

    Specifically, Shirky and Carr (and nearly all of his peers) hold to positions that are not neurally realistic, and would have to abandon much of their opinions (and specifically the reality of information overload) if they were informed by the recent findings in affective neuroscience on how human minds actually process and choose information. Surprisingly, this argument can be made quite simply, and is made (link below) using an allegory of the Boston Red Sox pennant run over the years.


    http://mezmer.blogspot.com/2012/02/searching-for-red-stockings-myth-of.html


    (Alas, my argument at three pages is a bit long for a comments section, but perhaps not as a link.)

    A. J. Marr

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    identicon
    a. J. Marr, Feb 25th, 2012 @ 3:11pm

    Can Shirky and Carr both have it wrong?

    If fault is to be found with Shirky and Carr, as well as almost all other internet pundits on information overload, it is in their premises, not their conclusions. Almost all hold the implicit assumption that humans are sensitive to information as static facts. However, if informed by the most recent findings from affective neuroscience on human decision making, this position cannot be true.

    Specifically, Shirky and Carr (and nearly all of his peers) hold to positions that are not neurally realistic, and would have to abandon much of their opinions (and specifically the reality of information overload) if they were informed by the recent findings in affective neuroscience on how human minds actually process and choose information. Surprisingly, this argument can be made quite simply, and is made (link below) using an allegory of the Boston Red Sox pennant run over the years.


    http://mezmer.blogspot.com/2012/02/searching-for-red-stockings-myth-of.html


    (Alas, my argument at three pages is a bit long for a comments section, but perhaps not as a link.)

    A. J. Marr

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
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    SujaOfJauhnral (profile), Aug 21st, 2012 @ 8:31pm

    I think talking too much crap makes people (Nick Carr) dumber.


    I've learned hell of a lot more on the internets than in school. I don't have to put up with stupid kids distracting me with petty bullying and/or stupidity. I don't have to sit through boring classes about shit I don't care about and will never use. I can learn at my own pace and get very very very specific knowledge about very very very specific topics, on demand.

    I think I told this already. Ok, uhh. Internet makes people smarter not dumber. Unless they where already dumb to begin with.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
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    SujaOfJauhnral (profile), Aug 21st, 2012 @ 8:35pm

    Re:

    Ugh. Facebook sucks your smarts away.

    Atleast porn has the benefit of turning you on and getting you off if it's to your tastes. Facebook is just the asylum of the internet.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
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    SujaOfJauhnral (profile), Aug 21st, 2012 @ 8:37pm

    Re: Re:

    Bwahahaha.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    icon
    SujaOfJauhnral (profile), Aug 21st, 2012 @ 8:38pm

    Re:

    There's been people doing exactly what you described since before there was a written language. The internet has nothing to do with it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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