09 June 2008

The Internet is Re-Wiring Your Brain

In the latest Atlantic, Nicholas Carr provocatively asks, "Is Google Making us Stupid?" The point he makes is that our new style of search, hypertext, and scanning rather than "deep reading" is actually changing how our minds are wired. He speaks to it as a problem of diffusing attention, and I agree that there is an element of that. But, as I tend to be, I'm an optimist on this score. I think that the Internet is changing how we attend to issues in a positive way.

The Internet has created a new kind of communication that facilitates understanding, coordinating, managing, and participating in systems. Such facility with systems - from ecosystems to economic systems to technical systems to social systems - is emerging none too soon.

The last century or so has been characterized by the emergence of specialists. We have experts who can improve the design and performance of products like combustion engines, bombs, and financial derivatives. They are heads down focused on parts of larger systems but their actions have implications that spill outside of their products. Getting here has been a journey characterized by "deep" reading, drilling down to greater nuance and detail and understanding. The problems created by their success has created a need for a different kind of thinking and communication, a communication that looks shallow at first glance.

Going further down the rabbit hole on these specialties won’t necessarily improve our world. The issues that matter are those that spill across domains, that don’t neatly fit into Cartesian boxes of categories that say more about what we project onto reality than reality itself. “Deep” reading and thinking promises less in the way of progress than “shallow” reading and thinking that make connections and perceives system dynamics.

The Internet is changing how we think. By raising our awareness of connections, it raises the probability that we will properly understand and manage the systems that define our world. This, it seems to me, is a good thing.

On a related note, Milena pointed me to Hyperwords - a program that allows you to make any word on a page searchable, as if it were all hypertext. Talk about connections! Economist article here.


HRH said...

I agree with you on this. I think that the majority of the population are not suited to be a specialist anyway. The more the rest of us can interact and learn about a bunch of stuff the better.

Jennifer H said...

It's like politicians who assume that the hot issues for women are health care and education, when the fact is that a lot of us know about (and are concerned about) a broad range of issues these days. We read a lot of news and other media, and a lot of it is online. (Ready news is read news?)

That's true of more demographics than just women, and I can't help but think that it's a positive change. The discussion of an issue or event can be so immediate.

Datasurge said...

Yes. Indeed. This is why we created Hyperwords. I feel it takes more energy to organize information than to create it and even when information is organized, it is organized only by a specific set of criteria (of course) so it will have to be re-organized for different people and circumstances. The aim of Hyperwords is to let you navigate along any dimension you choose. And such :-)

Ron Davison said...

I love the way you back up your claim about being a generalist by using a technical term like, "bunch of stuff." :)

it would be interesting to do a survey of the issues that are different because of the internet. I wonder if we could point to anything yet. (Webb in Virginia winning after the Maccau comment by Allen?)

very cool - self organizing complexity replaced by the self organizing complexity. Thanks for the cool tool.

slouching mom said...

I agree. Shallow searches are not necessarily any less helpful than deep ones.

Case in point: Two weeks ago I diagnosed a friend with the caveat that I am no doctor. I simply googled her two most pressing symptoms -- together. I looked through a bit of dross before coming upon an NIH description of a virus -- parvovirus -- that seemed to fit. I sent her the link.

Just yesterday her previously befuddled doctors confirmed that diagnosis.

I don't recommend willy-nilly diagnosing, BTW. Quite risky legally. ;)

Gypsy at Heart said...

Like Jennifer said "the discussion of an event can be so immediate" that's about the best and most amazing development in this whole interactive world, irrespective of how shallow or how deep one desires to delve.

Also, just like Slouching Mom has done. Can't tell you the number of times I've self-diagnosed medical concerns with the help of google. Don't know about you guys but so far so good on the track record. That means I'm either a hypochondriac extraordinaire or just really, really lucky at my google searching. Then again, perhaps it confirms my suspicion that I should have listened to my father when he recommended the virtues of a medical profession as a career. After all, I don't think virtual blood will make me faint like real blood does.

Dave said...

I'm not so sure Ron. I've made a living and a life being a connector. We have an A, a B, an L and I jump to 7. But, now and again, persistant, ordered thinking gives a better result than leaping. Not as much fun, but better.

Life Hiker said...

I agree. The deep thinkers are really important when it comes to making progress on technical matters, but those who can put the pieces of the big puzzle together are the ones who change the world.

The internet brings information to the "big puzzle people" better than anything in history, and it even connects those in far away places who are cogitating about the same issues. Great thing!

LSD said...

Should I comment? Yes; it's a perfect invitation to be distracted from what I should be doing!

As an architect I am required to have a general understanding of a variety of systems. Every project is different and opportunities to innovate are always there for someone who can see them. This said, I would suggest that the evil twin of the generalist tendency is the hamsterian attention span. Could it be that these qualities go hand-in-hand? I prefer my brand of mental circuitry and would be content were it not for the ever-present threat of committing errors or omissions.

Contrary to what Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, it's Satan who is in the details.

-As an aside, it would be interesting to know how datasurge found your mention.

Ron Davison said...

This is a great distinction between the shallow connections and the deep dive; fine to have a friend with google make a tentative diagnosis but you'd probably want someone who had gone "deep" when it came to the actual treatment.

I recently read Super Crunchers and the author claimed that a person equipped with just a multivariate equation did better than a doctor or a doctor with the same equation. Why? Doctors too quickly converge on a answer and then look for confirmation rather than staying open to new indications.

as is so often the case, I agree with you. But now I'm wondering if my comments might have stirred up more controversy had I made my comments in a library instead of on the Internet.

If only now, at a quarter to 7, you're getting distracted from work, it may well be a good thing that you're finally getting distracted. And I think it is true that it's often hard to distinguish between someone who is making connections and someone who is just flitting from subject to subject. Until you've seen their track record, it's hard to know if you are watching someone with ADD or, as LH says, the big puzzle people.