The internet is awesome. I mean that in both the correct way and the colloquial one. The internet is awesome because it’s HUGE and ever-expanding and it KNOWS EVERYTHING. Seriously. It knows more stuff than your mum does. I know this because the other day I asked my mother whether she knew how to make Eggs Benedict and she didnt, then I asked the internet and it told me. The internet is also awesome because it has (OVER 9000!) photos of cats doing cute things, and people saying funny things like all my base are belong to them, and there are videos of people doing funny dances in front of their webcams and then becoming instant celebrities.
And then the internet is awesome because it’s full of wonderful people who are happy to discuss lofty things like existentialism and quantum physics. Michio Kaku is there, on YouTube, explaining string theory. I mean, if it’s good enough for Michio, right?
Now just give me five minutes because this video on string theory is actually pretty interesting.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. The internet is awesome but it’s really distracting. It’s distracting because it’s so fantastic. Who would want to write a research paper on the benefits of using questionnaires in qualitative data collection processes when you can listen to Tuvan throat singers instead, while you read the latest instalment of XKCD and when the people of your country have finally cultivated a funny bone and they’re actually pretty hilarious? Really.
That the internet poses a distraction is not news at all. But is the internet actually, in a measurable and observable way, messing with our brains and making us stupid?
Nicholas Carr thinks so. In his 2008 article, Is Google Making Us Stupid, Carr laments that, much like HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey, his “mind is going… [he] can feel it”. He feels an “uncomfortable sense” that somebody is “tinkering with [his] brain… remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory..”.
Carr argues that he can remember a time not too long ago where immersing himself in a single piece of text for a number of hours was an easy task. He describes his long, self-indulgent, Wordsworthian walks and wanderings in the various folds and crevices of prose. Now, he complains, after two or three pages, he gets fidgety. He feels like he needs to be doing something else.
See, maybe it’s because I’m younger than Carr by a few decades, but this all sounds like ludditism to me. I’ve always been a bookworm and have never had a problem sinking my teeth into a good book. Sure, I check my email once or twice in the process, and sure sometimes I have to read a page twice because I start thinking about something else, like pie. Or Pi.
But surely that’s just a symptom of… you know… being human. Or maybe it’s because that book you’re reading isn’t terribly exciting.
And if I read less now than I used to a few years ago, that’s probably because I keep taking on new things to do in my leisure time. Like blog. Or cook. Or study for a Masters degree. Which means that perhaps I need to prioritise my activities.
Anyway, distraction is something we’ve always had to grapple with. It’s the way the brain works. All those pathways. All that knowledge to be had. I’d go so far to say that if you weren’t getting at least a little distracted then maybe something’s wrong because surely as humans our quest is to seek more, more, more knowledge.
And Carr references Marshall McLuhan, who says “media are not passive channels; they supply the stuff of thought and shape the process of thought.”
Well… yeah. Duh. It’s not called a “medium” for nothing. A straw is a medium. It supplies chocolate milkshake and shapes it into a hollow tube-like shape thing. And so if you suck from a straw which has been placed in a cup of chocolate milkshake, then you can’t panic if there’s suddenly chocolate milkshake in your mouth and everything tastes chocolatey and then water pales in comparison because you have tasted chocolate milkshake and it is goo-ooood.
Dammit now I want chocolate milkshake.
Nobody lives in a vacuum. You can choose not to invite a computer into your house. You can choose to stay off the internet FOREVAR and read your crevicey books. Nobody’s stopping you. But if you log on to the internet then you can’t suddenly jump up onto your chair and yell “OH MY GOD IT’S A CAT GET IT AWAY… OH THE INANITY… OH THE HUMANITY.”
The internet is a straw. And there are cats on the other side.
But it’s not just cats. It’s everything. The internet is full of crazy, silly and sometimes godawful things which you just cannot unsee. But there’s also some fantastic stuff. Great stuff. Infinite knowledge.
(I could launch into this whole spiel about how the internet is not only a straw but also the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, sent by Satan to tempt us with the promise of omniscience, but I won’t, because we’ve heard it all before from all those headless chickens who screamed and ground their teeth, fraught with worry that Gutenberg’s press would lead to debauchery and the undermining of religious authority. Which it did. And thank goodness for that.)
And this is exactly what Clay Shirky said in his response, Does the Internet Make You Smarter?,an online excerpt from his book, Cognitive Surplus:
“The present is, as noted, characterized by lots of throwaway cultural artifacts, but the nice thing about throwaway material is that it gets thrown away. This issue isn’t whether there’s lots of dumb stuff online—there is, just as there is lots of dumb stuff in bookstores. The issue is whether there are any ideas so good today that they will survive into the future. Several early uses of our cognitive surplus, like open source software, look like they will pass that test.”
And as for distraction? We can choose to ignore the distractions, either through sheer will power or by installing software which will block certain distracting sites like Facebook and Twitter during specified hours where we really do need to get cracking on that assignment. That’s it. Nobody’s shoving lolcats down your throat. You’re the one working the straw.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, this cat looks like he’s eating a cheezburger.