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

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Factions Shift as Civilians Die in Syrian War

    Scenario likely only to further confuse military situation on ground and potentially worsen humanitarian crisis that already has grown to epic proportions

    Presidential Hopefuls Woo Minorities, Evangelicals

    Four GOP candidates to speak at forum at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina

    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.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.