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.

len barber
7/5/2009 1:52:36 PM

Ray, I presume this is the same ill-informed electorate that elected Obama and Clinton.


vincent wright
9/7/2008 12:22:20 PM

I'm joining in only to add my support to Stephan's very well-reasoned and believable argument. Indeed, I agree with it so much, I'd like to quote a few choice items from it: "1. The internet doesn't make you dumb. Waiting for other people to tell you if you're dumb or smart is dumb. 2. It's probably a coincidence that magazine and newspaper writers are saying that the internet is dumbing us down -- their jobs are threatened by the democratization of information, since we no longer need to read the Boston Globe or the Futurist to get the "facts" about reality. We can get the facts ourselves, and also hear other people's opinions -- not just those of professional writers. 3. And because there is a lot of garbage on the Internet, as there is in the New York Times, you need to become smarter -- think for yourself -- to determine what is good info for you. 4. ...The mainstream economic order has been created by the rich, for the rich. Democratizing information via the internet may be the best hope we have of changing our economy to actually work for the majority of us." I cannot see a reason to not agree with the above 100%. Of course, if you know reasons they are not true, please feel free to point out the failures of the argument *via the web*! :-) Besides, where else would someone like me have ever heard of Rapid Plant Movement EXCEPT on the "Internets"? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_plant_movement Keep STRONG, Everyone!


stephan_1
7/14/2008 12:59:02 PM

The internet doesn't make you dumb. Waiting for other people to tell you if you're dumb or smart is dumb. It's probably a coincidence that magazine and newspaper writers are saying that the internet is dumbing us down -- their jobs are threatened by the democratization of information, since we no longer need to read the Boston Globe or the Futurist to get the "facts" about reality. We can get the facts ourselves, and also hear other people's opinions -- not just those of professional writers. We can conveniently go to the CIA World Fact Book online (why waste time traveling to a local library), or visit Sony/Warner/EMI/Virgin records to find out about musicians, or check a local bus route, or order concert tickets, or quickly find a recipe for a killer martini. And because there is a lot of garbage on the Internet, as there is in the New York Times, you need to become smarter -- think for yourself -- to determine what is good info for you. If the authour Andrew Keen thinks Web 2.0 is bad for society, he'd better head for some remote island before Web 3.0 happens (Tim Berners-Lee, who invented HTML which enabled the World Wide Web to exist, and others are working on Web 3.0) -- the internet is expected to become an "unbelieveable data resource." Ray -- you are sooooo right. The mainstream economic order has been created by the rich, for the rich. Democratizing information via the internet may be the best hope we have of changing our economy to actually work for the majority of us.


r cree
7/4/2008 12:07:57 PM

Ah, the dumbing of the American mind. I think that scholars having been discussing this for the last 40 years---oh, I guess no one read that :)))). Given the abysmal knowledge of most people on geography, social and historical events---just think of people on the street being questioned by Jay Leno---it is funny, but painful to realize the lack of broad knowledge and perspective the American people have. It is no wonder that we were manipulated twice to elect George W. Bush---I wonder if an informed electorate would have allowed such fraud to have occurred. I guess to blame the internet for dumbing the American mind seems like an obfuscation to the real fact that the rulers of America and the world have wanted us to be dumb---they want disposable interchangeable parts that don't question the abusive economic system or the government control drama--of the rich, by the rich and for the rich---all of us serfs are irrelevant. Otherwise the government and the economic system would have invested in social services, education to create a smarter American population. But obviously it is cheaper to transfer/externalize the blame and costs of a corrupt economic and political system onto the individual---and of course have your well-paid and controlled intellectuals decry how dumb Americans are--when in fact it has been designed that way by the people in control. So it seems that the internet is just a convenient coverup for the people in power to deceive us from the real facts of our economic and political reality---we are embedded in a vicious aristocracy run for the benefit of the few--not a democracy. The economic game is rigged in a million subtle ways and we are deluded by the illusion that our vote can change the political reality---it can't and I think that the 50% of the people that don't vote realize that voting will never change their lives and their families lives for the better. Hmmm, amazing what comes out of the smoke and mirrors of th


bennett gordon
7/2/2008 10:23:56 AM

Hey Jake and Jessie, Thanks for the comments. The idea of internet-free mornings sounds pleasant. I used to watch TV in the mornings and found it made my days worse. And, Jessie, I often get more quality information from other people than I do from the web. But considering the massive amounts of information I have gleaned from the internet, I just can't believe the internet is actually making people stupid.


jake mohan
7/2/2008 9:51:19 AM

Lately I've instituted Internet-Free Mornings, where I spend my time at home before leaving the house reading a book or magazine while I eat my breakfast, rather than sitting in front of my computer. This is especially important now that I'm at a job which requires me to look at the Internet for hours at a time. I find I'm in a much better mood during my morning commute, and have a healthier attitude toward the Internet when I do confront it. I hope to institute Internet-Free Bedtime soon, in hopes of sleeping better.


jessie fetterling
7/2/2008 8:52:18 AM

I'm 22, and since childhood, I've been trained to depend on the internet from anything to movie times to online research for college papers to shopping for clothes. However, I hate it, and more often than not, I rely on other sources to get my information. A lot of the time, if I have a question, I still call my mom because, to me, she's more intelligent than the internet. I guess my friends have started to call her google though?!?! But she's way better than that.