This text is a summary of the famous article published by Nichols Carr in The Atlantic in 2008.
“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous scene toward the end of . It is the final act of a battle of wits between the astronaut and the malfunctioning machine. As he is being disconnected HAL pleads, “Dave, my mind is going, I can feel it. I can feel it.”
I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going— it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.
I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. I used to enjoy a long book but that’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. In short, it has become has become a struggle.
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. As a writer, research that once required days in the libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got all the information I was after. For me, as for others, the Net is becoming the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many.
But that advantage comes at a price.
The Net is shaping the process of thought and seems to be chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the same way as a search engine delivers it: quickly and immediately at the press of a button. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
I’m not the only one. My friends and acquaintance are having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. The way we think has changed our mental habits. Speed is everything. Will we ever have the concentration and patience to read novels like War and Peace ever again?
Ironically, due to the abundance of information on the internet we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking.
It must be remembered that reading is not an instinctive skill for human beings in the way that speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand.
The human brain is very plastic. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. The brain has the ability to reprogram itself. Take for example the clock which reprogrammed our eating, sleeping and working habits; we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.
Today, in the age of software, started to use new vocabulary to describe our moods, « I’m feeling off line today ».
The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.
Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today.
Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a counter tendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine.
All advances and technologies have been criticized for changing our way of thinking. For example, the great thinker Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads.
Furthermore, the printing press, in the 15th century, set off another alarm bell of the human condition. People worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery.
Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom.
Susan Barke 28/07/2021