By Ruth Marcus
I’ve come down with a bad case of the shallows.
That’s technology writer Nicholas Carr’s term—and the title of his new book—for the invisible, invidious impact of computers on the modern brain. Carr compares himself to HAL, the malfunctioning computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” lamenting as its circuitry is unplugged, “Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it.”
As Carr writes, “I can feel it too. Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.” Trying to read a book, he says, “my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. ... I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the test.”
Me too. I thought it was middle age, and maybe it is, or perhaps belatedly self-diagnosed adult attention deficit disorder. But Carr’s assessment—“what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation”—jibed uncomfortably with my own experience.
Once upon a time, which is to say before the advent of the Internet, my work as a journalist involved reading documents, making phone calls, attending events. Turning to the keyboard, or the screen, was the end of the assembly line.
Now, it seems, it is the totality: I spend hours skittering across the virtual surface of the Web, flitting from place to place, never resting for very long. I read a few sentences—or write a few—and my hand twitches, like an alcoholic reaching for the bottle, toward the BlackBerry.
I must know—now—what has arrived in my in-box, even though almost all of it is junk. I live an alt-tab existence, constantly shuttling among the open windows on my browser. I have switched, in Carr’s formulation, from “reading to power-browsing.” I am a lab rat “constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”
I love technology. It lets me work better and faster. It untethers me from a physical office and allows me to, well, alt-tab efficiently between work and family. E-mail and social networking, with the combination of ease of access and remoteness of interaction, help make and renew personal connections.
But technology also takes its toll—including physically. “The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, to The New York Times. The brain is malleable, and, like any regular exercise, the instant gratification world of the Web helps build certain neural connections while others molder.
The implications of this are most worrisome for children. Like Carr, I had an “analogue youth” before a “digital adulthood.” A modern child’s existence is all digital, all the time. Children have constant access to stimulation—on their laptops, on their iPods, on their cell phones. It is no surprise that their capacity to submerge themselves for hours at a stretch in the world of a book has been diminished. Their brains are wired to expect more stimulation.
My current household technological battle involves making certain the kids turn off Facebook and cell phones when studying. They believe this to be not only unnecessary but rude: In an age where no one is ever really out of contact, how could they possibly be inaccessible to their friends?
And then there is the disturbing question of how the era of virtual communications affects friendships and personality. Kids prefer text over talk; it is, to them, more efficient. But the inability to discern tone and inflection enhances the possibilities of misunderstanding, and the distancing effect of disembodied language lowers the barrier for hurtful speech.
In a new study, researchers at the University of Michigan found that college students today are about 40 percent lower in empathy, measured by standard personality tests, than their counterparts 20 and 30 years ago. The biggest drop occurred after 2000, coinciding with the rise of online communications and social networking, and the study’s author, Sara Konrath, sees a possible correlation. “Empathy is best activated when you can see another person’s signal for help,” she told USA Today.
The subtitle of Carr’s book is “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” Perhaps he should worry about our hearts as well.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
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