Thoughts on Internet distraction, pt. 2

By Jacob Siefring

If you descend from the Mont Royal hillside on which the McGill School of Information Studies building is situated and traipse through central campus to arrive at the Schulich Engineering library and go into the stacks at QA 76.9 C 66, you’ll be looking at a strange welter of sensational and dystopic-sounding titles of books. These titles include:

Trapped in the Net; Life on the Screen; The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace; Silicon Shock; The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet; Technobabble; Digital Diaspora; Cyburbia; Slaves of the Machine; Moths to the Flame; High Noon on the Electronic Frontier; Monster or Messiah?; Digerati; War of the Worlds.

Before this smatter of classificatory wonder I found myself, having come in search of Theodore Roszak’s The Cult of Information: A Neo-Liddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking, first published in 1986 and later revised. The book is, of course, hopelessly outdated technology-wise but nevertheless an impassioned, thoughtful, and even touching defense of humanistic values (the ‘art of thinking’).

One passage in it I found absolutely critical, and a complement to all of the points raised by The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Here’s Roszak:

Introducing students to the computer at an early age, creating the impression that their little exercises in programming and game playing are somehow giving them control over a powerful technology, can be a treacherous deception. It is not teaching them to think in some scientifically sound way; it is persuading them to acquiesce. It is accustoming them to the presence of computers in every walk of life, and thus making them dependent on the machine’s supposed necessity and superiority. Under these circumstances, the best approach to computer literacy might be to stress the limitations and abuses of the machine, showing the students how little they need it to develop their autonomous powers of thought. (242)

The last line in bold rings truest. Given that technology is “limited” and prone to “abuse”–read, overuse–parents and educators need to be responsive to this potential.

As a parent of a three-year-old, I confess that I’m terrified of the technological “gray” territory that lies ahead. How will my partner and I define and fix boundaries? Such as: At what times is it appropriate (and not appropriate) to use an electronic device? At what age should my daughters first acquire wireless electronic devices? Six? Five? Eight? Seven? How closely will my partner and I have to police our daughters’ use of their devices–for what activities? What would a ‘reasonable’ time allocation look like for such activities as gaming, texting, and video streaming? In brief, I feel as though I were staring off a cliff into a fog, or peeking into the box of some Pandora as yet unseen.

After calling for children to be educated for an awareness of the limitations and abuses of computing power, Roszak cites Sherry Turkle’s book, Life on the Screen (1995), and speaks of the importance for children of experiencing nature and observing the behavior of wild animals. This almost strangely feels like a non sequitur, but I don’t think it is. Unless we situate our understanding of technology relative to the continuum of human experience, we risk failing to grasp what its proper use might be.

As for classification tier QA 76.9 C 66: that’s in the section of the Library of Congress classification outline (QA 75.5 – 76.95) defined by the parameter “Electronic computers. Computer science.” I would add that we’re looking at something like Computers, their (dystopic) effects on individuals and on society. It’s a remarkable grouping of books and ultra-relevant for our time; that much is certain. Such recent titles as discovered iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us (Larry Rosen, 2012), Digital Diet: The 4-step plan to break your tech addiction and regain balance in your life (Daniel Seeberg, 2011), and Cyber Junkies: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap (Kevin Roberts, 2010) indicate the rising visibility of our problematic relationship to our computing technologies. (Sieberg’s book I actually read, after finding it in the ‘new books’ section of the Atwater Library and Computing Centre, where I volunteer. It contains some sage advice you might find helpful if you want to curtail your electronic attachment. Through it I learned about RescueTime, a tool that provides weekly analytic reports on your online behavior.)

Final note: This blog is currently seeking submissions from any student, current or former, of McGill’s School of Information Studies. Tell your peers about your summer job/practicum/internship; reflect on the degree you just completed; rant about how hard it is to find a job; or tell us what you’re reading that’s good (or bad). Direct commentaries to Here at Beyond the Shelf I will not be very active, but will occasionally do some cross-posts from my blog, bibliomanic, where I will be posting regularly.

Thoughts on Internet Distraction

By Jacob Siefring

In June, 2010, W.W. Norton published The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Because I frequently read book reviews, I was aware of and interested in this book for some time before I got around to it. What gave me a sense of urgency to read it was seeing Jonathan Safran Foer’s high praise of Carr’s work. He basically called it the book of the year. The book develops ideas advanced in Carr’s article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, published in The Atlantic (Jul-Aug. 2008). Before that, Carr published two books on technology, notably Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage and The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google. He’s a former executive editor for the Harvard Business Review.

Carr believes — and shows, using lots of evidence drawn from research in neuroscience and cognitive science (the book is shelved in McGill’s Osler medical library) — that our interlinked computing technologies pose a serious challenge to deep thought, hampering our capacity to reflect and contemplate in meaningful ways. This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking claim; at least, not for anyone who has had the experience of, while piloting a web browser, being unable to focus for any length of time on the task at hand, or who has found their attention increasingly diverted and distributed through a web of hyperlinks. Figures of speech to describe our computerized, information-saturated mental state abound: popcorn brain, mental obesity are among the most apt. Forget information overload.

I think we’ve most all of us felt an inkling of suspicion that web use might influence thought patterns and micro-behavior. Why Carr’s book is important is because it culls together enough scientific research, present-day information, and historical context to show us that — beyond the shadow of a doubt — the net is rewiring our neural circuitry and impairing our intelligence (that is, at least insofar as high-level intelligence used to mean the ability to grapple with and dissect complex problems, as well as to remember lots of information). If you’re skeptical of this claim, I encourage you to read Carr’s book. Nevertheless, for the hurried, here are a few of what I retain as its most salient points.

  • Developers of automation-technologies and decision support systems are often motivated by the desire to relieve ordinary people of the burden of executing routine, mundane tasks. They want to make life easier for everyone; so, they advocate outsourcing decision-making to computers and the writing of algorithms to assist in search retrieval (namely, Google’s PageRank). These evangelists of technology often share the view of Wired writer Clive Thompson, who refers to the Net as an “ ‘outboard brain’ that is taking over the role previously played by inner memory. […] He suggests ‘by offloading data [from our brains] onto silicon, we free our own gray matter for more germanely “human” tasks like brainstorming and daydreaming’ ” (Carr 180). But this conception of the brain, and the well-intentioned idea that technology will allow our thoughts to become more serene and lofty, are dead wrong, Carr shows. Unlike a computer, the human brain does not have a limited storage capacity; experts on memory affirm that “the normal human brain never reaches a point at which experiences can no longer be committed to memory; the brain cannot be full.” “The amount of information that can be stored in long-term memory is virtually boundless” (192).
  • We tend to forget that our interaction with technology is always bidirectional, not just unidirectional. Human intentions may determine behavior, but, as Carr reminds us, tools and media exert a powerful shaping force on consciousness and behavior — especially once they become dominant or integrated into daily routines. This is well summed up in John Culkin’s formulation, “We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.” And every tool, every medium has its specific limitations — from the map, to the typewriter, to the power loom, to the clock, as Carr shows (209-211). The searchable internet’s limitations include its isolation of facts and information from their various contexts; and the sprawling, heterogeneous character of the information that’s found there. But enough.

For Carr’s critics, his points are bitter pills to swallow, and many have dismissed them outright. His argument has been called “defeatist” and “reductionist.” From my personal experience, I tend to agree with Carr. The internet has changed the way we think, and, for the most part, not for the better. But at least there’s good news. Exposure to Carr’s book has made me more self-aware of my overuse of the internet and of its insidious effects on my thought patterns. Since having read The Shallows, I’m less inclined to take a laptop with me now when I go out. Even as I write this, I have used the internet-restrictive application Freedom (available for a free five-use trial period!) to curb my forays into the hyperlink jungle, where my thought wanders away and my will atrophies. I think I can even hear myself think. Can you? Hear me? Hear yourself think? Not get distracted?

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.