Utne Blogs > Science and Technology

Are the Internets Rotting Our Brains?

 by Bennett Gordon

Tags: internet, web 2.0, philosophy, human knowledge, the Atlantic, Boston Globle, Andrew Keen,

Early Adopter“Are you concerned about internet addiction?” a woman asked a panel of internet entrepreneurs, including Craig from Craigslist, at the National Conference for Media Reform. 

“No,” the panel answered resounding. Of course they weren’t concerned. The business models for companies like Craigslist depend on people with internet addictions. 

Many in the media, however, fret that the internet is rotting people’s brains. In the cover story for the latest issue of the Atlantic,  Nicholas Carr argues that Google is making human knowledge more superficial. Once upon a time, people spent hours poring over enormous novels, but today people just skim headlines. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” Carr writes. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

In spite of the neo-luddite undertones of his argument, Carr makes some interesting points about how the medium of information changes the wiring in people’s brains. Socrates once believed that the written word would lead people to forget more information, since people tend to forget what they aren’t forced to remember. Carr writes, “Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted.”

Other writers have taken a more hysterical tone, lamenting the effect of the internet on culture. In the book The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen called the digital revolution, “ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule… on steroids.” In a point-counterpoint for the Guardian, Keen wrote that the internet produces the “dumbing-down of culture.” Since publishing his 2007 polemic, Keen admitted to the Futurist that he’s “more optimistic now,” but still sticks by his argument that the Web 2.0 is bad for society.

Railing against technology’s interminable advance seems like tilting at windmills, but now is a good time to consider the internet’s effect on human knowledge. Writing for the Boston Globe, Drake Bennett calls attention to the enormous influence that Google has over people’s intellectual lives. Since Google has emerged as the dominant search engine, the website has become the primary way in which people organize the internet. Bennett quotes Greg Lastowka, an associate professor of law at Rutgers, who wrote, “Google's control over 'results' constitutes an awesome ability to set the course of human knowledge.” Even if that knowledge is making people smarter, and not more stupid, handing control over that information to a single company—albeit one with a mantra of “don’t be evil”—can be dangerous.

Image by Jason Cumberland, licensed under Creative Commons.