The internet shrinks your brain? What rubbish

By David Aaronovitch (THE TIMES, 13/08/08):

Winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature are entitled to grand pronouncements, or else what is it for? So Doris Lessing, last winter, anathematised the entire internet, declaring that it had “seduced a whole generation into its inanities”. According to Lessing, the web helped to create “’a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned, and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education to know nothing of the world”.

One might wonder how she knew this with such certainty. How many of these young men and women had she met, and held conversations with? Slightly more, perhaps, than the average immobile person in her late eighties.

But Lessing has received confirmation in recent weeks from much more contemporary quarters. In the latest Atlantic Monthly, the headline over a major article by Nicholas Carr asked the question: “Is Google making us stupid?” to which Carr’s answer was a Dorisian affirmation. Not long afterwards, Bryan Appleyard penned a long piece entitled “Stoooopid… why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks”, which – as you can imagine – also took the Lessing line.

“Once,” wrote Carr, “I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.” The culprit was the net, which, with its search engines, YouTubes, blogs and Facebooks, seemed to be “chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation”. And not just his. Carr quoted a writer who blamed the internet for changing his mental habits. “I can’t read War and Peace any more,” this writer complained, leaving unclear whether he was trying to re-read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, or had got halfway through before webweariness overtook him.

Carr’s view was that there are two kinds of reading: deep reading, which – essentially – is books, and web reading, where all we’re doing is the much lesser decoding of information. In the first we make “rich mental connections” and in the second we just don’t. In one we are properly engaged, in the other we ain’t. “In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book,” says Carr, invoking an ideal, “or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.” With the net and its instant access to information we turn into “pancake people”, widely and thinly spread.

Appleyard had just been inside that quintessential British experience-former, the intercity train carriage. On the train to Wakefield, with his new 3G iPhone, he was “distracted from distraction by distraction”. There were the calls, the texts, the e-mails, “and I’d better throw in the 400-odd news alerts that I receive from all the websites I monitor via my iPhone”. I get seven or eight a day on my phone – Sky news, Tottenham Hotspur and London weather. Four hundred on one train trip seems excessive. Anyway…

“The digital age is destroying us by ruining our ability to concentrate… it’s killing me and it’s killing you,” says Appleyard, who might die more slowly if he elected to receive fewer news alerts.

“Attention,” he asserts, “is the golden key to the mystery of human consciousness… the opposite of attention is distraction, an unnatural condition.” Which argument, if taken to its logical conclusion, would make the idiot savant, with the inability to be distracted, the most natural human being of all.

The rot set in with television, but “the internet multiplies the effect a thousandfold… Now teenagers just go to their laptops on coming home from school and sink into their online cocoon,” wasting their time on stuff like MySpace on which, apparently, they create connections which are all “threadbare”, lacking “the complexity and depth of real-world interactions”, lacking in loyalty and feeling.

Appleyard fears that we are now “infantilised cyber-serfs”, whose lives the internet has made easier, “but only by destroying the very selves that should be protesting at every distraction, demanding peace, quiet and contemplation”. Yes, we all should all be monks. Matins, then work in the fields, then simple food, then Compline, some contemplation, then up – slowly – to the Scriptorium to illuminate some manuscripts, supper, prayers and bed.

How often do such weh ist mir arguments rest on an idea of our “natural” selves being alienated by the world of progress? Wasn’t it better when we all skinned our own rabbits and made our own music? Let us salute the ideal, St Simeon Stylites, up his pillar in the Syrian desert. Now there was an undistracted man.

Let us begin then at the level of personal experience. I have no problem with reading long novels, despite being a daily and constant user of the internet. I was one of the few people I knew who had read War and Peace 35 years ago, and I still am. Far from turning me into a bibliphobe, the internet has made it much easier for me to find and buy books that were hard to get before.

Nor do I recognise in Lessing’s and Appleyard’s strictures the experiences of my own daughters. I think they know, not just as much as Lessing did in her teens, but a lot more. Nor, from what I can see, are their Facebook contacts “threadbare”. They are almost all people the girls know in real life and see regularly, supplemented with contacts that might otherwise have easily been lost, such as friends from earlier schools. In this sense the internet has helped my kids’ social life be just as rich, if not richer, than my own was.

How can, for example, the Google project to place on the internet as many books as possible be productive of anything other than greater learning? What we are asked to do is to look. If we have that capacity, then we don’t need to be ordained into the learned priesthood, or try to wangle ourselves library cards to which we aren’t entitled. Just type three words, in the right order, and as Aladdin says, Open Sesame, and connections are made – some predicted, many fortuitous. Perhaps it is this uncontrollable, self-sustaining spread of knowledge that threatens the “certainties” that Lessing recalls.

Of course, what all three of my Jeremiahs entirely miss about the internet is its quality of engagement. That’s what makes the new era so much better than the television age. As Clay Shirky, the American writer, put it, the new media are a triathlon: “People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share…” Isn’t that superior, he asks, to being stuck in a basement watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island?

The challenge is not to lament, but to equip, to teach ourselves how to search and how to discriminate. A GCSE in search engine skills, perhaps.