Can our brains survive the internet?


In an earlier Karstens Newsletter  we carried a piece on professor Susan Greenfield, an Oxford neuroscientist and pharmacologist, who believes the Internet and its derivative ‘social media’ offspring are now so pervasive and so influential in our (or at least our children’s) daily lives that they are subjecting the human brain to unprecedented challenges, inflicting a range of deleterious effects, such as limitations on our memory and concentration spans and, in the process, affecting a kind of deformation of our potential for simple human communication.

Echoing Greenfield’s bleak assessment of the Internet’s influence on our brains, there is another figure who is broadening the argument by claiming that the Internet’s remorseless assault on our memory span is linked to the technology’s bias towards fragmented knowledge and our creeping loss of understanding of the ‘context of things’. Furthermore, it is argued, we are in danger of losing, in a generational sense, the core characteristics that define us as humans. Heavy stuff. This is, after all, a pretty sweeping argument and many maintain it is recklessly premature, particularly as the Internet has only been a global phenomenon for some 15 years at most.

This other voice – the name is Nicholas Carr – has more of the philosopher (or even ‘secular prophet’) about him, compared to Greenfield’s primarily scientific persona – although both rely on much the same data, data that is accumulating rapidly and is mostly supportive of their perspective and their arguments.

Carr is increasingly perceived as something of a leader of what might frivolously be called the humanist freedom brigade, if such warriors exist, against the greedy Juggernaut of celebrity tech millionaires, and their billions of customers and acolytes, who seem to have already declared victory for their ubiquitous ‘thinking machines’. One thing is clear, Carr has stirred up a fascinating international debate about ‘the new technology’ and where it is taking us.

By all indications, Carr is a very private, independent (i.e. non-academic) intellectual and a highly successful author, his latest books are quickly added to the New York Times bestseller list and remain on it for months. Now in his mid-50s, he was educated at Ivy League colleges (Dartmouth and Harvard), and, on the basis of interviews, it would seem he spends his life, variously, either deep in conversation, or reading, or writing books and when not at his desk he is traveling the world giving lectures to enthralled audiences.

His most notable books are The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) and his latest The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains (2010). The subtitles are a good indication that his brain at least hasn’t been taken over as yet. He is also the author of a famous 2008 cover story in the American monthly, The Atlantic, titled ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’

Carr is in the intellectually adventurous tradition of the early 20th century American polymath Lewis Mumford, and the Canadian philosopher/gadfly of the media (and a big time intellectual celebrity in the 1960s) Marshall McLuhan. Rather like McLuhan, Carr goes some way in conceding that ‘the medium is the message’, but unlike McLuhan he is a committed pessimist who has little time for what he calls today’s ‘technological utopianism’. Indeed, he strongly argues that ‘the medium’ (i.e. the new communications technology) might well portend the very death of the message (i.e. civilized learning through conversation).

But he insists he is no Luddite: ‘Human-centered automation doesn’t constrain progress. Rather, it guides progress onto a more humanistic path, providing an antidote to the all-too-common, misanthropic view that venerates computers and denigrates people…. We are amazed by our computers, and we should be. But we shouldn’t let our enthusiasm lead us to underestimate our own talents. Even the smartest software lacks the common sense, ingenuity and verve of the skilled professional. In cockpits, offices or examination rooms, human experts remain indispensable. Their insight, ingenuity and intuition, honed through hard work and seasoned real-world judgment, can’t be replicated by algorithms or robots’.

For readers who want to know more about Nicholas Carr and the big debate as to whether the Internet is a harbinger of the end of civilization, or a miraculous tool to democratize all knowledge, just look up Carr on, ironically, his bête noir, Google.

Written by Tony McAdam (editor)