Sunday, February 19, 2012

Does Internet limit our deeper thinking abilities?

In a recent conference, one fellow attendee, who happened to run a navigation software business, was lamenting how in-car navigation and PNDs (Personal Navigation Device) have atrophied our sense of direction and location.

He clearly has a point, but isn’t that true of all new technology? When human society transitioned to locomotive train and then to cars, we had to sacrifice our horse riding skills in favor of driving. When technology makes old skills useless, it often also requires us to learn new skills. The acute sense of space and direction of a traveler of pre-cartography days got replaced by our ability to decipher complex visual information of a map. And then the map reading skills got replaced by the new device-savvy awareness of running navigation apps. We give up certain skills but perhaps become smarter in some other ways as we adopt new technology.

While this premise of technology 'taketh some skill and giveth some skill' may often be true, clearly there are trade-offs. The point is eloquently highlighted in the context of the Internet by a 2010 book by Nicholas Carr – “The Shallows” – where he builds on his 2008 article titled “IsGoogle making us stupid”. Delving in to recent developments in neuro-science, he makes a case that the internet, while generous in its access to dynamic knowledge, encourages “rapid, distracted sampling” of information potentially atrophying our capacity for contemplation and deep reflection. In contrast, the age old printed book, with all its limitations, serves to focus our attention, potentially promoting sustained creative thought.  The internet while democratizing our instant access to knowledge has also added to our sense of distraction as we nibble at news, blogs, podcasts, videos while surfing from link to link to get quick answers.

Mr. Carr ultimately wonders if our over-exposure to online content is re-wiring our brains, making us shallow, addicted to quick bites of information, freeing us from the need to devote sustained attention to thinking as we constantly dip in and out of online content. Along with our power to get any content right away comes the inherent distraction that Carr argues may be changing our capacity to focus. The distraction is further accentuated by the fact that a single web page contains many different chunks of media – texts, audio, video, widgets, hyperlinks, advertisements – creating a “cacophony of stimuli”.

In a world of abundant content, ubiquitous connectivity and dynamic access, distraction is perhaps inevitable as we have the easy luxury of navigating content with the flash of a click.  But how this influences the style and depth of our thinking and adds to our cognitive load is the crux of Carr’s concern. Reading print material in many ways is a linear process allowing more stable attention, unlike the navigation of networked, dynamic content, peppered with hyperlinks, widgets and advertisements, which according to Carr constantly adds an element of being “distracted from distraction by distraction” (using the words from T.S.Elliot’s first of “Four Quartet”). Add to this the fact that our brains are not wired for multi-tasking (see my blog “Efficient Multitasking – the myth..” March27, 2011) and the challenge of fast cyber-hopping to our cognition and our capacity for deep thinking gets even bigger.

In today’s world of fast tweets, real time analysis and instant gratification, Carr’s concerns deserve attention as we grapple with the fire hose of everyday information.

Or, perhaps on a lighter note, all these may just be part of our evolution and at some time in the deep future, our brains will re-wire the neural connections, handle our online information without losing our capacity for deeper dive and focused contemplation.  After all, as Carr himself quotes the 17th century Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega, some of the same concerns existed 400 years back too about proliferation of printed books -
“So many books – so much confusion
All around us an ocean of print
And most of it covered in froth”

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