It seems that every time we invent new technology that improves the quality of our lives, and allows us to work and learn faster and more efficiently, someone finds out that that same technology is somehow harmful. Back when I was a kid, people were blaming TV. TV was making us stupid, they said. Because of TV and video people read less, write less and spend most of their time veging out on the couch.
Then we got the internet – a wonderful medium that is not as passive as TV. It allows you to actively seek out information, learn play and communicate with others faster and more efficiently than ever before. What do smart researches say now? The internet is making us stupid. The attention span of an average internet user is now shorter than that of a nervous rabbit on crack. People don’t read anymore – they skim and jump around. No one even buys dead tree books anymore! The sky is falling!
If we look back far enough, we will see that technological progress was always accompanied by these sort of concerns. Socrates worried that reliance on written word will make men forgetful and overly reliant on written sources. Opponents of the printing press complained that wide availability of books will promote intellectual laziness. When radio started becoming popular people predicted similar intellectual malaise.
I usually dismiss such complaints as Luddite ramblings spread by those who fear and lack understanding of the new technology and the new ways of thinking. But these worries about how internet is affecting the inner workings of our minds is not baseless. Take the longish article written by Nicholas Carr for The Atlantic. He makes a really good case for this theory and supports it with copious amounts of quotes and references. It is a great read, but you clearly realize that it is simply a well written opinion piece when you see that Carr has no hard data to support his claims. His case is built around anecdotes and observations.
I’m a scientist, technologist and a geek at heart – I need data. Not statistics, not surveys, not anecdotes. I need data collected in formal double blind studies run multiple times with different population samples in different conditions to rule out simple correlations. Until we have that I will dismiss the “technology is making us stupid” rants are Luddite fear mongering.
Technology is most certainly not making us stupid. While it may be changing the way we are thinking, it is not changing it for worse. If anything, we have been getting progressively smarter as a species in the recent years. Laura Miller in her article for salon.com writes:
IQ tests have to be regularly updated to make them harder; otherwise the average score would have climbed 3 percent per decade since the early 1930s. (The average score is supposed to remain at a constant 100 points.) And IQ measures problem-solving ability, rather than sheer data retained, which has grown even faster over the same interval. Each of us knows many more people and facts than our counterparts of 100 years ago; it’s just that the importance of those people and facts remains somewhat uncertain. Knowing a little bit about Lindsay Lohan and Simon Cowell (two people I recognize despite having no active interest in either one) can’t really be equated with knowing a bit about Marie Curie or Lord Mountbatten. We have more information, but it isn’t necessarily more valuable information.
Modern men are able to store, catalog and process much more information than ever before. We learn much more rapidly than ever before. We adapt to changes much better than our ancestors did. We are much better at looking at the big picture. We excel at identifying patterns in large data sets, processing large amounts of information, multitasking and making decisions based on abstract inputs.
Lamenting that average citizen is not reading as long and as deeply as the prominent thinkers of the past is rather silly. For one, let’s stop comparing apples to oranges. There have been always stupid people on this world who didn’t read books, or try to better themselves intellectually. The only difference is that now they all have Facebook and twitter account – so their ignorance is plainly visible on the interwebs.
Personally, I don’t think that my attention span changed that much. It’s true – I used to read much more books when I didn’t have a computer or internet. But that’s simply because there was nothing else to do. I filled my idle time reading, painting miniatures, drawing and writing down ideas for games and RPG campaigns. Now I spend my idle time reading, blogging, programming, learning new programming languages, playing video games, researching stuff that interests me, reading technology related blogs, learning stuff related to my field, looking up shit for friends and family who do not know the art of Google Foo and etc. I simply have more things to do on in my free time these days – and consequently less time to commit to each of these things.
Still, I have no problems committing to a single thing. I do not suffer from the internet induced ADHD the alarmists seem to be complaining about. People actually joke that I have selective hearing. When I’m working on something I usually tune out all external stimuli and they usually need to call out my name 3-4 times before I actually hear it. Sometimes I don’t even notice people hovering over my desk asking me questions.
This is also the state in which I’m most productive and my work is most enjoyable. I hate being interrupted every couple of minutes because this breaks my flow of thoughts. The more work gets piled on me, the less I can actually get done during the day. Some days I can’t even get into the zone because my work requires me to make constant context switches.
But perhaps I’m different. Perhaps my computer science education and programming background predisposes me for that type of concentration. I also like to read dead tree books. I like stuff that is smart, ambitious and thought provoking. I can’t imagine my life without the internet, but I don’t view it as a distraction. I never really needed software like Writespace or Writeroom to help me concentrate.
Maybe my programming and my blogging here helps to train my brain to stay on the same track for extended periods of time. Do you suffer from the internet induced ADD? Do you have trouble concentrating? Do things like email, twitter and facebook distract you all the time? I can usually tune all of that out. Except my work email and phone of course – I can’t really ignore these, though sometimes I wish I could.