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Could technology that brings us a wealth of information make us dumber?



Friedrich Nietzsche was a physical mess.

Sickly as a child, he suffered debilitating injuries in a fall from a horse while a member of the Prussian military. While still in his 30s, he had all but lost the ability to write as bouts of shortsightedness left him unable to focus on a piece of paper. As a last-ditch effort to continue his work, he ordered a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, an 1880s high-end version of the typewriter. He quickly memorized the keyboard and began banging out new stuff with his eyes closed. But a not-so-funny thing happened.

One of his close friends, the composer Heinrich Köselitz, noticed a change in Nietzsche's writing: It had become tighter and more mechanical; the prose had less of a flow. Köselitz remarked, "My 'thoughts' in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper." To which Nietzsche replied, "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts."

Now, with each passing day, it is becoming abundantly clear that technology is having a profoundly negative impact on the way that many people read, remember and even think. Such is the premise of a chilling new book by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

A couple of years ago, I read Carr's essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He laid out a frightening landscape in which students and others who should be thinking were instead skimming along atop an intellectual surface and only occasionally dipping a small net into the Sea of Google to retrieve, temporarily, an appropriate word or reference. And, after doing so, they were moving blissfully along, neither retaining the information nor engaging in thought deep enough to help form independent thoughts somewhere down the line.

There are self-proclaimed forward thinkers who see nothing wrong with that. They argue that having a head full of dates and vocabulary words is needless clutter; why store that in your head when Google has it all right at your fingertips? Unfortunately for them, science shows that the consolidation of information and the use of long-term memory provide the basis for what is considered true human intelligence. Indeed, it is only through the combination of deeply stored data that we humans are able to formulate new ideas.

Of course, to some, new ideas are overrated. There is a growing subset of people—absolutely in lust for technology—for whom speed and simplicity trump creativity and originality every time.

Certainly, every new technology brings with it new opportunities and a unique set of problems. But the Internet and its associated technologies are sweeping people along like a flood through a ravine. And like Moore's Law—which isn't really a law, but rather a brilliant observation that the computing ability of a single chip will double roughly every two years—the effects on humans are cascading over one another, generally without anyone pausing to ask what these effects are in the short run, or what their effect will be in the long run.

Among Carr's findings (backed by considerable outside research):

• People who do most of their reading on the Internet develop reading patterns that significantly decrease their overall comprehension. Cameras trained on the eyes of such readers show that the eyes follow the pattern of a capital "F," following all the way to the end of the top one or two lines, then dropping down, reading about halfway through the first line of the second paragraph and then plunging down to the bottom.

• Numerous experiments show that when two groups are asked to read an article or story—with one group holding the piece in printed form in their hands, and the other reading it on a computer monitor—the online readers almost always perform worse (often much worse) at answering a series of questions based on the piece's content.

Research shows that reading has a tactile component, and that the act of holding a mouse is not the same as holding a book or magazine in one's hands. (The numbers on this are absolutely stunning. One experiment I read about elsewhere had students reading an article in a magazine and taking a quiz. A couple of days later, they would read the same article online, take another quiz, and do worse, as though the online experience had erased some of what they had read earlier.)

• One of the more fascinating experiments had two groups trying to solve a complex logic problem on a computer. One group had the aid of a software program that was designed to be as helpful as possible, while the other group got a bare-bones program that simply outlined the task. The group with the helpful software jumped out to an early lead, but over time, the other group pulled even and then forged ahead. The members of the latter group solved the problem in less time and with fewer mistakes, while the others "aimlessly clicked around" trying to solve the puzzle.

I highly recommend this book (and not on a Kindle). It's human nature to believe that we control the tools that we use, but that it not always the case. Just ask the TV that calls my name every time a rerun of The Rockford Files is on.

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