News / USA

The Distraction Machine

A controversial new book by journalist Nicholas Carr makes the bold claim that the Internet is not only changing how we think, but that it's also lessening the quality of our thought. Amid the many changes the Internet is bringing to our cultures, a new questions arises: what changes is it bringing to our minds?

English Luddites smash an automated loom in protest against the new technology
English Luddites smash an automated loom in protest against the new technology

In its time, the "stocking frame mechanical knitting machine" was a technological wonder.  Introduced into 17th-century England, the bulky and expensive device could generate many times the amount of yarn or textiles that hand-knitters could, and it didn't require skilled workers.  Which is exactly why it became the target of such fierce opposition by angry weavers, who in protest would raid a knitting plant and smash the machines.

These roving gangs were known as "Luddites," and although motivated primarily by economic interest, their movement eventually became synonymous with all those opposed to new technology.  In the end, the Luddites, like many before them, were unable to stop technology's advance and died out as automation took hold.

However, as the excesses of the Industrial Revolution pointed out, new technologies can bring new troubles, and not all who question their costs can be dismissed as a Luddite.

Consider writer and journalist Nicholas Carr.  No techno-phobe, Carr has built a career covering the economy, culture and technology in numerous articles and books such as "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google." Carr's latest book is titled, "The Shallows" and it's raising eyebrows - and in some cases, voices.  The reason can be found in the book's sub-heading: "What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains," and from Carr's point of view, the answer isn't reassuring.

"What the 'net does, by being such a distraction machine, is it emphasizes that skimming, rapid fire approach to collecting and processing information," Carr says.  "But what it de-emphasizes is all the ways of thinking that require attentiveness, concentration."

The Distraction Machine
The Distraction Machine

As the stocking frame loom was, Carr says, the Internet is like a machine that does one thing very well: it pumps out information in all sorts of forms and in ever-growing volume, encouraging users to skip and skim among it for bits of information.  In modern parlance, multi-tasking.

There are two problems with such multi-tasking, says Carr.  The first is the quality of work: researchers he quotes suggest the brain is simply not able to handle several different tasks at the same time, so with every flip from task to task, it has to recall the problem, remember where it was, and try to finish the problem.  All those flips take time and energy, and may result in poorer overall performance than if each task were finished before moving on.

The second problem is deeper: the quality of thought.  "The brain is adaptable...very plastic," Carr says, meaning that it's able to adapt to a wide variety of demands and situations.  But the Internet, with all its hyperlinks, widgets and multimedia interruptions, demands people to have shorter and shorter attention spans.

"They tend to reduce our comprehension, reduce our learning, reduce our understanding," says Carr of the multiple tasks familiar to web surfers.  And herein lies the problem: if you don't practice longer, more concentrated modes of thought, your ability for deep thought may wane.  Carr calls it a "use-it-or-lose-it" kind of problem.

"Those aspects of the brain that we exercise get stronger, they recruit more neurons, literally, into those neural pathways.  Those aspects of mind that we neglect get weaker.  And so we really do risk losing some mental capacities that are important to our intellectual lives," he notes.  Deep reading, creativity and problem-solving all require this focused type of thought, says Carr, adding "...there's not much place on the web for those kinds of habits of mind and as a result I think we're beginning to lose them."

Carr's book is generating a great deal of debate and dissension.  Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker is one of many who argue Carr makes too much of the dangers of multi-tasking, and also overlooks the many benefits the Internet provides, such as cataloging, storing and retrieving almost any bit of information instantaneously.

"Knowledge is increasing exponentially," Pinker wrote recently in the New York Times.  "The Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search, and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias.  Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart."

The Distraction Machine
The Distraction Machine

Carr agrees that the Internet is an unparalleled achievement in knowledge storage, and also grants that it may be making some parts of our thought processes stronger.  "Probably our ability to shift our ... visual focus among lots of different things on a screen, can be improved by our use of the web," he says.  "Unfortunately, those gains in visual processing ... come at the expense of some of our deeper modes of thinking; our ability to think in conceptual terms, critical terms, our ability to be reflective.  We need to look at both sides of the ledger."

In the end, the Internet is no more likely to be stopped than was the stocking frame knitting machine.  And while there's little agreement as to whether the web is eroding our capacity for deep thought, nearly everyone agrees on how to fight it: self-control.

"Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour," writes Pinker.  Carr agrees, but says this is no great surprise.  The hard part is actually doing it.

"The expectation of being constantly connected, constantly processing information, is being built very deeply into our work lives, and it's being built into our social lives," he says.  "To back away is very hard and requires some sacrifices ... but you really have no choice."

You can follow issues of technology, society and the Internet at our new online site "Digital Frontiers"


Doug Bernard

dbjohnson+voanews.com

Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

You May Like

Multimedia Obama, Modi Resolve Nuclear Deal Issues

update Leaders find resolution on issues of liability of suppliers to India in event of nuclear accident, US demands to track whereabouts of material supplied to country More

WHO's Late Efforts in Tackling Ebola Highlight Need for Reform

Health experts debate measures to reform agency’s response to global public health emergencies in special one-day session on deadly outbreak More

One Tumultuous Year in Power for CAR's President

As sectarian violence raged across Central African Republic, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has Herculean task: to end civil war and put country back on right track More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid