RASHMI OBEROI | 6 SEPTEMBER, 2019
Is The Internet Reprogramming Our Brain?
Is The Internet Reprogramming Our Brain?
Recent conversations will people here and there made me realise that Google has made a whole bunch of people into ignoramus fools. The ability to think, research or create seems to have disappeared. I can see the changes. Discussions with others have led to the same conclusions. There is an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with our brains, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. We are not thinking the way we used to think.
A friend mentioned that she can feel it most strongly when she is reading. Immersing herself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. Her mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and she would spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now her concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. She gets fidgety, loses the thread, and begins looking for something else to do.
For more than a decade now, we have been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the internet. The web has been a godsend to most people. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and we land ourselves with all the information we need.
Now a universal medium, the internet is a conduit for most of the information that flows through our eyes and ears and into our mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. But this boon comes at a price as this is not just passive channels of information. They supply the material for our thought, but they also shape the process of thought. It is also removing our capacity for concentration and contemplation.
The more we use the internet, the more we have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing as it has altered our mental habits. It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of reading are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.
When we read online, we tend to become mere decoders of information. Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. The internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. It is proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.
Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts as the internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about this, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The intellectual ethic remains obscure.
Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California had declared that its mission is ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. It seeks to develop the perfect search engine, which it defines as something that understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want. In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can access and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.
The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf, the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of have a financial stake in collecting the titbits of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more scraps, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.
Is there cause to worry? Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with content, we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our thinking. Are we taking the risk of turning into intellects of fools as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button?