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

    US Leaders Who Served in Vietnam War Look Back and Ahead

    In New York Times opinion piece, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator John McCain and former Senator Bob Kerrey say as US strengthens relations with Vietnam, it is important to remember lessons learned from war

    Who Are US Allies in Fight Against Islamic State?

    There is little but opportunism keeping coalition together analysts warn — SDFs Arab militias are not united even among themselves, frequently squabble and don’t share Kurds' vision for post-Assad Syria

    Learning Foreign Language Helps US Soldiers Bridge Culture Gap

    Effective interaction with local populations part of everyday curriculum at Monterey, California, Defense Language Institute

    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.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora