the internet and neurobiology

The blogosphere was buzzing yesterday with Nicholas Carr’s article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" even if, perversely, given his argument about the spread of online reading, the article had not yet appeared on the net yet or on newsstands and could only be read by subscribers to the print version of the Atlantic. 

In this article Carr sounds the alarm about how the vast amount of information on the Net and the ease of searching it via Google are changing our ways of thinking, spurring us to replace solitary, deep thought with surface-level grazing for content. Carr’s entirely justifiable fear is that we are less able to process and analyze information these days and more prone for a quick fix, going off to search for the next source of stimulus.

This article comes at a time in which I’ve been reading a bit about Neuroaesthetics, in particular as developed by Warren Neidich in his essay "The Neurobiopolitics of Global Consciousness" and in the conference proceedings that you can find at Artbrain #4 (also Warren’s site). 

There’s likely to be much more about this on the site in the future, but for now, I’d like to observe that what leads me down this path is the suggestion that historical conditions can correspond to neurobiological changes. In other words, that it isn’t just that we’re reading differently as we learn to navigate the net, it’s that as we select for one form of cognitive processing over another we are reprogramming our brains at a fundamental neurobiological level.

In doing so, we support that activity with the tools and environments. These, in turn, pass on the changes in our brains to future generations and affect the conditions they emerge in.

In this light, network culture wouldn’t be merely a cultural condition, it would be a neurobiological state, a plateau in a long, Darwinian evolution of humanity’s cognition. Given the radicality of the changes in the last decade—comparable to what happened in 1900-1915 (the period in which modernity formed) or the 1950s and 1960s (the moment in which the postmodern generation came of age)—it seems more urgent than ever to study network culture as a period, rather than as a collection of unrelated phenomena. 

brick wall

 

The blogosphere was buzzing yesterday with Nicholas Carr’s article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" even if, perversely, given his argument about the spread of online reading, the article had not yet appeared on the net yet or on newsstands and could only be read by subscribers to the print version of the Atlantic. 

In this article Carr sounds the alarm about how the vast amount of information on the Net and the ease of searching it via Google are changing our ways of thinking, spurring us to replace solitary, deep thought with surface-level grazing for content. Carr’s entirely justifiable fear is that we are less able to process and analyze information these days and more prone for a quick fix, going off to search for the next source of stimulus.

This article comes at a time in which I’ve been reading a bit about Neuroaesthetics, in particular as developed by Warren Neidich in his essay "The Neurobiopolitics of Global Consciousness" and in the conference proceedings that you can find at Artbrain #4 (also Warren’s site). 

There’s likely to be much more about this on the site in the future, but for now, I’d like to observe that what leads me down this path is the suggestion that historical conditions can correspond to neurobiological changes. In other words, that it isn’t just that we’re reading differently as we learn to navigate the net, it’s that as we select for one form of cognitive processing over another we are reprogramming our brains at a fundamental neurobiological level.

In doing so, we support that activity with the tools and environments. These, in turn, pass on the changes in our brains to future generations and affect the conditions they emerge in.

In this light, network culture wouldn’t be merely a cultural condition, it would be a neurobiological state, a plateau in a long, Darwinian evolution of humanity’s cognition. Given the radicality of the changes in the last decade—comparable to what happened in 1900-1915 (the period in which modernity formed) or the 1950s and 1960s (the moment in which the postmodern generation came of age)—it seems more urgent than ever to study network culture as a period, rather than as a collection of unrelated phenomena. 

brick wall

 

2 thoughts on “the internet and neurobiology

  1. Proust was a Neuroscientist
    Coincidently reading PROUST WAS A NEUROSCIENTIST. I think it provides some historical context to “the suggestion that historical conditions can correspond to neurobiological changes.”

  2. Who changes?
    What are the ages of the people interviewed for this piece, and of the author? I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that most of the people here are at 10+ years older than myself (26). It’s not explicitly stated, but is probably necessary for someone to have been a professional writer or Ph.D candidate a decade ago, to have noticed a change in work habits since the Internet has been pervasive.

    I think I’m in a bit of a network-culture crack. My childhood computer-access was limited to 8-Bit Nintendo, Keyboard Mastery, and Oregon Trail (2nd grade/age 8 onward) and I started using the Internet regularly in high school. I certainly haven’t been browsing and texting out of the cradle (perhaps that is reserved for those born in the 1990s and onward?), but “grew up” basically computer-literate — while even more frequently falling into a book or musical instrument for hours at a time. My higher education was/is fraught with an older generation pushing traditional research methods and globally disparaging the Internet as unreliable or less-academic. This is now changing at least a little bit, as “real” (e.g. traditionally prestigious, previously print-based) resources are now digitally accessible, and as the Internet becomes less and less suspicious with age.

    It’s certainly harder to read long texts online than in print. It’s not just an attention span issue – it’s physically harder. The printed page is easier on the eyes than the glowing screen. I couldn’t read War and Peace online either, and other than for traveling purposes, the thought of electronic books screams murder to the retinas. There are certainly countless other influential physical, social and circumstantial factors besides the cognitive influence of the Internet format.

    All that preface to say: I’ve noticed no decline in my ability to pay attention to/become absorbed in things for extended periods of time. When I read books (it’s less frequent now, due mainly to schedule rather than desire or attention span) I focus when I’m interested, and don’t focus when I’m not. Same as ever. In fact, when Responsibilites & Obligations include reading (again, with the qualification “interesting”) I do get absorbed for long periods. The damn Internet itself enables me to be more of a book junkie than ever, since almost every title I seek is available, often for a very affordable price, on Amazon or ABE used; digital catalogs allow me to promptly request obscure titles from the depths of multiple universities’ holdings directly to the most convenient physical outpost of my own school’s library system. Besides, there’s value in being equipped with the skills to efficiently access & find a multitude of answers, rather than being expected to know a limited number of them (not that the two are mutually exclusive.) This very efficiency affords me chunks of stolen time for reflection here and there. I’m convinced that my decade of experience in this very activity – reading countless blog/forum posts and then rapidly formulating basically coherent, if imperfect, responses – is precisely the thing that has developed my ability to consistently score extremely well on traditional essay exam questions, and to quickly respond to questions on panel discussions, seminar classes, and the like.

    Carr’s article sounds like panic at the threat of obsolescence. It falls prey itself to the tendency to Internet-ify things into catchy – if misleading – soundbites like “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and certainly doesn’t make a convincing argument for how modified cognitive exercise habits might be threatening our species with collective hebetude. Perhaps Google is making some members of the author’s generation comparatively “stupid” against their past selves, whereas those of us who either haven’t had to adjust or who have embraced the adjustment are thriving in this mode of operation.

    I also wonder at the assumption of the need to worry about what will happen to humans if we lose the cognitive developments associated with the past 600-ish years of mass literacy in the West. As the article itself points out, the cognitive changes made by reading-as-we-knew-it are not a necessary attribute hard-wired into humans. If this changes – it’s interesting, sure, and worth tracking, but not necessarily a cause for worry. The ability to respond & adapt to cognitive influences is of fundamental importance, not the specific adaptations themselves.

    None of this is meant to automatically valorize efficiency, organization, and the Internet. It has its problems. Indeed, the best argument making a case for why anyone should worry about this, is at the end of page 3:

    “Their easy assumption that we’d all ‘be better off’ if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized… The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web… the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements… The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.”

    Now that is worth more than a moment of worry – except that under the all-subsuming Capitalism, there’s surely a way to make leisurely, concentrated reflection upon extensive texts endlessly profitable as well!

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