Whether new media technologies numb the mind is a centuries-old question, dating back to classical antiquity. Nicholas Carr, in his new book The shallows, a nuanced and thoughtful study of the harmful effects of excessive internet use, uses the fascinating example of Plato and Socrates.
History of new media technologies
In Plato’s famous dialogue Phaedrus, the philosopher makes Socrates discuss the merits of writing with Phèdre. Socrates tells the story of an encounter between the Egyptian god Theuth, who among other things invented the alphabet, and Thamus, a king of Egypt. The technologically savvy Theuth argues that writing will be a boon to society, allowing information to be stored and thus providing “a recipe for memory and wisdom”. Thamus disagrees and suggests that the writing will have a deleterious effect on memory as people lazily trust what is in these early databases. Thamus goes on to say that writing will not create true wisdom because people will not cultivate their minds. Rather, it will create a kind of false wisdom. The dialogue clearly shows that Socrates agrees with Thamus.
Plato was not on Socrates’ side in this matter. In The Republic he pleads against poetry, which in antiquity represented oral tradition. Poetry was recited in public rather than written. Plato felt the benefits of writing superior to a purely oral culture. The writing would encourage the reader to be logical, autonomous and rigorous.
Even in the fourth century BC, in Greece, there were concerns that the new alphabet-based writing technology had the power to change the way the mind worked. Several centuries later, modern machines would have a noticeable effect on thought and literature. In 1882, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche found his eyesight failing and could not concentrate while trying to write with pen and paper. To solve this problem, he ordered a Danish-made Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter, which would allow him to close his eyes and type the keys. The philosopher found that the powerful slam of the craft during composition had a noticeable effect on his writing, making his prose tighter and more telegraphic. He concluded that “our writing materials help shape our thoughts.”
The shallows has an alarming caption: What the Internet is doing to our brains. It’s tempting to think from this eye-catching blurb that Nicholas Carr is keen on scolding internet users and predicting the decline and downfall of Western civilization. Fortunately, this is not the case, and The shallows surprises with its long historical view and balanced analysis of how the media affect the quality of our thinking and reading. With every advancement in information technology, there has been a sound of voices warning of its dangers. When the Gutenberg press revolutionized the accessibility of information, Robert Burton, author of Anatomy of melancholy (1628), deplored the plethora of books and the mental confusion they caused. “One of the great diseases of the time is the multitude of books which overload the world so much that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter which hatches every day and is brought into the world.” Seems familiar?
How the Internet affects the way we read and think
The basic conclusion of The shallows is that what a new technology gives on the one hand, it wins on the other. The more the Internet offers us ease and convenience, the more it takes away our ability to exercise our brain more rigorously. It promotes light and dispersed reading. And for all the information we glean so quickly, much of it is quickly forgotten. If we remember it, it is so fractured that it cannot be integrated into an overarching pattern or logic that benefits our understanding of the world, or ourselves.
The shallows provides many examples of how cognition is diminished by the internet’s powerful ability to store, collect, and sort information for us. In one study, two separate groups of people were assigned an identical online task. One group used programs that provided helpful prompts, thus making the task more “user-friendly”. The second group did not receive these same prompts, but had to understand the task better on their own. Eight months later, the two groups came together again to do the same puzzle. Those who had taken the most intellectually demanding program were able to complete the task twice as quickly as the “friendly” group of programs. Dutch researcher Christof van Nimwegen found that the group using the more difficult program was able to plan ahead and map out a strategy, while the other group relied more on trial and error to solve their case. head.
Another study mapped the amount of information retained when reading text containing hyperlinks. Hyperlinks have been hailed by many educators as a new path to improved learning. To test this theory, Canadian academics gave seventy people a short story by Elizabeth Bowen to read, “The Demon Lover.” One group read the story directly, unrelated. The second group read the hyperlinked story, as you will find in any article online. Hypertext readers in subsequent interviews about what they had read said they found the story confusing and “very unstable.” The other group did not have such difficulties.
To add further alarm to this mix, a researcher tracked internet users’ eye movements, attaching a small camera that tracked eye movements as they read pages of text. The eye reads F-shaped web pages. We just read the first few lines of text, then the eye quickly dives down the page. (Discouraging news for those who write articles online!)
What are the lessons to be learned The shallows? The internet is certainly a great and powerful tool that has incredibly improved our lives. Who wants to go back to the bank queue when all of your banking can be done from the comfort of your own home? What writer or researcher would want to come back to haunt the piles and dusty hallways of libraries when so much more can be accessed with the click of a mouse?
Over dependence, or obsession, with the Internet as the whole and the end of all wisdom, intelligence, and information, however, is a mistake. Just as pre-literate societies produced great oral poetry and could cultivate a deep intellectual and philosophical awareness, we can also find other avenues of intellectual stimulation for moderns. Reading books without the constant interruptions of the Internet is one solution. Sitting in a quiet natural setting and “reading nature” is another way (again, studies have shown that we think much more clearly in these peaceful environments).
A reading culture that now relentlessly moves to the Internet from the printed page is an “F” -shaped reading culture: shallow, fragmented, shallow and forgetful. What this means for our intellectual and cultural future is a guess.
The Shallows: What the Internet does to our brains, by Nicholas Carr. Published in 2010 by WW Norton and Company. ISBN: 978-0-393-07222-8
Source by Chris Saliba