Rewiring Rotten Brains: The Internet After TV

Following up on his (in)famous article in The Atlantic MonthlyIs Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr argues (this time in Wired) that the way we read online is changing our neurophysiology. (CBC interview here.)

It was Marshall McLuhan who pointed out that the way information is transmitted determines the way it is received, not only providing the stuff of thought but structuring the way of thinking. The Web – as Carr’s argument goes – promotes less-focused reading: hyperlinks direct your attention elsewhere; multiple tabs, windows, apps divide if not divert your attention entirely; animated flash ads dare you to do anything other than… what was I saying?

The result is a loss of focus, literally rewiring our brains to make us less likely – indeed less able – to engage in deep reading/thinking.

Internet guru Clay Shirky responds that abundance is good, and notes that reading is not gone, just the certain kind of reading associated with literary and academic types. While Carr laments the impending passing of the “complex, dense and ‘cathedral-like’ structure of the highly educated and articulate personality,” Shirky says good riddance.

But deep reading/thinking doesn’t simply require being able to follow a linear argument; it involves circling in on an idea, along the way picking up contextual aids – and counterarguments – from around the periphery. In a nutshell, context creates meaning and contributes to understanding. Notwithstanding philosopher Hilary Putnam’s quip that any philosophy that fits in a nutshell belongs in one, nothing (arguably) embodies this philosophy better than the hyperlink. There is a limit, of course, to the amount of context one can handle; passing the threshold is called ‘information overload’. But segregation (‘de-linking’) is not the answer.

The paradigm of information segregation is the University and its ‘disciplines’, a model of the ‘specialization’ trend described by Adam Smith and theorized by F. W. Taylor. Hence the “cathedral” metaphor must be recast in light of – or in the shadow of – the information “silo”.

The Internet is in many ways the University’s antithesis. (In many ways not.) And in its present incarnation – as a carry-over from the Industrial Revolution – the University is in many ways a problem in need of a solution. The Web might be just the thing.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the unprecedented scope and complexity of the problems the world faces demands an equally complex (syncretic and interdisciplinary) approach to social and biological systems; to the interconnections within, between and among them.

The Medium and The Message

Etsy’s Mandy Brown, writing on A List Apart, suggests that what might look like attention-deficit hyper-surfing is similar to the reluctant, reflective and ritualistic way we approach traditional print media: scanning the front page of a newspaper for topics of interest or perusing the back cover of a book before deciding to commit. There is a fidgety dispersal of attention leading up to the part where you actually attend to something.

Once I find an article I want to read online, I click Readability, a bookmarklet that converts any noisy webpage into a serene e-book format; and then Shift-Command-F, which sends my Chrome browser into full-screen mode so that I’m not beckoned by open tabs and windows or desktop applications.

Carr’s argument conflates the medium and the message – the means and the format, the tool and its use – the way people often conflate the Internet (physical transmission of information) and the Web (virtual presentation of information). If New Media is turning us into attention-deficit twits, how much of the blame lies with the mode of transmission; how much with the method of display? This is an important distinction, because the Internet isn’t going to change much (it’ll get faster), whereas the Web is profoundly if not infinitely malleable.

Sure, even with my focusing strategy, some attention-drain is bound to result from knowing a vast sea of information and entertainment is only a click or key-stroke away. But the same is true mutatis mutandis of a bookshelf at arm’s reach, or a newspaper’s half-dozen other sections scattered across my coffee table. (Isn’t the hyperlink’s precursor the footnote?)

In fact, there’s an even more powerful attention-drain even closer: one’s own imagination. Remember daydreaming? “Of course you don’t,” says Walter Kirn in The Atlantic, arguing that the ubiquity of handheld devices, and the subsequent availability of limitless entertainment, heralds the End of Boredom. On the contrary, this suggests to me that we are insatiably bored.

Since the advent of interactive media we’ve been told that a shift is underway, from “lean back” (TV) to “lean forward” (Web). But the victory of the active over the passive mode is mitigated by the brain- and bum-softening effects of half a century of television, which has produced a sedentary and less-than-curious populace. Do we have a hunger for engagement, or simply an insatiable appetite for entertainment?

Again, Shirky:

“Someone born in 1960 has watched something like 50,000 hours of television already… more than five and a half solid years… Somehow, watching television became a part-time job for every citizen in the developed world.”

The turn from passive to active media frees up this “cognitive surplus”: time and energy that can be put toward something productive and useful and that is otherwise wasted in front of the boob-tube.

“Once we stop thinking of all that time as individual minutes to be whiled away and start thinking of it as a social asset that can be harnessed, it all looks very different. The buildup of this free time among the world’s educated population – maybe a trillion hours per year – is a new resource.

“Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year. [Using] … a back-of-the-envelope calculation … all the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits [on Wikipedia] represent around 100 million hours of human labor.”

Given that our thinking has been structured (in McLuhan’s sense) by television – Carr’s real if unacknowledged target – we must be vigilant about not reproducing its mind-enslaving effects. (Perhaps rewiring a rotted brain is a good thing?) Indeed, some of the results of the pooling of cognitive surplus are less than inspiring. But some are empowering, even transformative. The meaning of a tool is its use. In other words, the Internet can be as much about interruption as disruption.