September 24, 2010 â€¢ Volume 20, Issue 33| Is the Web changing the way we think? | | By Alan Greenblatt OverviewRecently at lunch, Eric Wohlschlegel announced, â€œI have to take a BlackBerry pause. â€Plenty of people interrupt social and business meetings to check messages on their mobile devices. There was a time just a few years ago, Wohlschlegel recalls, when his employer didn’t require him to have a BlackBerry. Now, as a spokesman for the influential American Petroleum Institute, Wohlschlegel is expected to be in constant contact with the world at large, fielding some 200 work e-mails a day.
He doesn’t have the option of tuning them out. But when circumstances forced him to, he had a hard time adjusting. His BlackBerry stopped working at just the same time that his home computer crashed, leaving him disconnected, and disoriented. â€œYou always fantasize about that one day when you sit back and go golfing,â€ he says. â€œBut then when you have a moment without being connected, you realize how significant it is and what you’re missing. â€Meanwhile, Wohlschlegel kept checking the empty holster on his hip, out of habit.Many people describe feeling â€œphantom vibrationsâ€ signaling incoming messages after their smartphones have gone bust.
People today are more connected than ever, visiting social-media sites, checking headlines on the Web and texting, e-mailing and instant-messaging. The Internet has become the focus of many people’s lives â€” the place where they socialize, shop, do their work and view and listen to entertainment. Mobile phones, with their instant-messaging, Web-surfing and online-shopping capabilities, can link people to the Internet and to each other at just about anytime, anywhere. Texting and IMing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort,â€ a student wrote. Some researchers worry the Internet might even be addictive like substances such as alcohol and tobacco. (AFP/Getty Images/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi) | â€œTexting and IMing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort,â€ a University of Maryland student wrote after being asked to refrain from using electronic media for a day. â€œWhen I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life.
There’s no question that Americans are engaging more than ever with electronic media. According to a Ball State University study conducted last year, most Americans spent at least 8. 5 hours per day looking at screens â€” a television, computer monitor or mobile phone, and frequently two or three at once. Television viewing has not gone down in the Age of the Internet â€” but reading printed works has. Near-constant use of the Internet can not only be habit forming but also something that comes to be expected by others.Because text-messaging and Twitter allow people to respond instantly, friends may expect you to respond instantly. Noting that one teen in California had sent 300,000 texts in a month, William Powers writes in Hamlet’s BlackBerry, his 2010 book about the impact of technology on contemporary life, â€œThe goal is no longer to be â€˜in touch,â€™ but to erase the possibility of ever being out of touch.
â€Use of the Internet and handheld devices while driving can also be deadly, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned Sept. 21, calling for a crackdown on distracted driving.More than 5,000 deaths and nearly half a million accidents were caused last year by distracted driving, he said, citing National Highway Safety Administration figures. Automakers have supported bans on text-messaging and using handheld cell phones while driving, but they have introduced other distractions, he said. â€œIn recent days and weeks, we’ve seen news stories about carmakers adding technology in vehicles that lets drivers update Facebook, surf the Web or do any number of other things instead of driving safely,â€ he said.Technology is also creating expectations that people will be available to work at virtually any time of the night or day. A Chicago police sergeant has filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that his availability during off hours via BlackBerry entitles him to overtime pay.
â€œGiving a workaholic a laptop is like giving an alcoholic a bottle of gin,â€ says E. Jeffrey Hill, a sociologist at Brigham Young University. â€œIt enables just that kind of compulsive behavior. There’s now a serious debate going on within therapeutic circles about whether people can become addicted to the Internet in the way that they might become addicted to chemical substances. And there’s a broader debate taking place about whether the Internet is changing the way people think. Much of that debate has been triggered by journalist Nicholas Carr, author of the controversial 2008 Atlantic article â€œIs Google Making Us Stupid? â€ He has since expanded his ideas into a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.Carr says the Internet is an unmatched tool for communications and information but argues that it can have bad effects on our brains.
The Internet, he says, speaks to the parts of our brain that are attracted to movement, visual imagery and novelty â€” primitive parts of the brain that do not lend themselves to deep thought and contemplation. â€œThere’s a whole realm of thought that I think is very important to the richness of our personal intellectual lives, and also very important to the building of culture, that requires an attentive mind,â€ Carr said. We don’t want to sit alone in a dark room thinking about one thing all day long, but neither do we want to be processing a constant influx of texts and messages and doing Google searches and clicking on links all day long. And yet, that is where I think as a society we’re headed. â€The advent of each new communications medium launches a debate about whether it will help to democratize culture, or dumb it down. The question of whether popular taste is being ruined or cheapened has come up with many new forms of communication, including movies, television, paperback books, comic books, video games and blogs.Jonah Lehrer, the author of How We Decide, a book about the brain and decision-making, and a blogger for Wired, the technology publication, argues that Carr’s concerns are overstated.
Sure, people need to put down their devices once in a while to allow themselves to daydream, he says, but he argues that the Internet provides far more than enough information to justify the distractions that come along with its use. | â€œThere’s no doubt that we’ve come to depend on these tools radically in the last five to 10 years,â€ Lehrer says. When an iPhone gets dropped and smashed and we have to wait for it to be fixed â€” we’ve all had that anxiety. But I would frame that anxiety as a sign of how useful these tools are for us, not how they’re corrupting our Pliocene brain. â€Some people have compared the Internet to an outboard brain or separate hard drive, capable of remembering far more than a human brain can â€” or needs to. â€œIt’s no longer terribly efficient to use our brains to store information,â€ according to Peter Suderman, a writer for the American Scene, an online magazine. Rather than memorizing information, we now store it digitally and just remember what we stored.
â€It may be that having to remember information such as friends’ phone numbers was just a â€œfrozen accidentâ€ of history, something that we won’t miss, as New York University technology professor Clay Shirky writes. But Carr argues that the Internet makes it harder to remember anything, that the influx of competing messages interferes with the physical mechanics of the brain that move information into long-term memory. â€œAlmost ertainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,â€ says Loren Frank, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco. When the brain is constantly stimulated, he said, â€œyou prevent this learning process. â€Carr cites studies that suggest that the Internet can change the way the brain acts. One, by Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and coauthor of the book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, found that people’s brains changed in response to Internet use.Experienced Google users displayed different neurons on brain imaging scans than novices â€” but the novices’ brains reacted the same way after just a few days of limited Web surfing.
â€œYou can change the brain relatively quickly,â€ Small says. Small isn’t worried the Internet is â€œgoing to rot our brains. â€ But he does say it’s having profound effects on our lives that we’re only starting to grapple with. â€œIt’s created a whole new age, or stage of human development,â€ Small says. â€œYou think of the printing press or the development of agriculture,â€ he continues. This is up there, or even beyond it. â€As people grapple with the idea that the Internet may be changing thought and behavior, here are some of the questions they’re debating:Does the Internet make us smarter? The Pew Internet & American Life Project put a variation of Nicholas Carr’s question â€” â€œDoes Google make us stupid? â€ â€” to hundreds of technology experts.
A majority disagreed with Carr’s premise, but their ideas about how intelligence had been reshaped by the Internet ranged widely. Some felt that people were freed up from rote tasks such as memorization of facts.That could end up meaning that we have to redefine what we mean by intelligence, as machines take up a greater share of the tasks once left to the human mind. Some stated their belief that the Internet had helped create a â€œhive brainâ€ that allows people to share thoughts and come to collective solutions to complex problems together. â€œThere’s a pretty broad feeling among lots of technology users that these tools can serve their needs in new ways,â€ says Lee Rainie, who directs the Pew project. â€œYou can gather up information quickly and easily, which might have taken you enormous amounts of time in an earlier age,â€ he says. At the same time, people will moan and groan about the distractions that these devices bring into their lives.
â€No one disputes that the Internet has made much more information readily available to just about anyone. â€œIt’s been a boon in that it gives access to all kinds of stuff that a crummy high-school library wouldn’t have even come close to having,â€ says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. But Thompson worries that the way Google filters information makes it potentially less useful, in certain respects.He jokes that good students will cite material from the third page of links that a Google search calls up, while bad students will not look past the first page. â€œThe problem is that so much of the stuff that would really be a boon is not used, because it’s not on the first page of a Google search,â€ he says. The narrowing of information â€” necessary given the glut that’s now available â€” can cause problems even among serious researchers. Lehrer, the author of How We Decide, cites a study indicating that since scientific papers have been widely available online, fewer of them are being cited.
Even though we have access to all sorts of information, we seem to be citing the same texts,â€ Lehrer says. â€œThe Internet allows us to filter our world, to cherry-pick our facts. It’s just human nature writ large. â€David Levy, a professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, says that the rapid transmission and accumulation of knowledge made possible by technology is helpful, but he worries that information overload can have some ill effects. Namely, he’s concerned that the flood of information leaves people with no time to think. There’s another piece of the process of learning and growing and getting information further assimilated, and that’s the time for contemplation,â€ he says. â€œWe’re just not allowing ourselves sufficiently the time to do deeper reflection.
â€Paul Saffo, managing director for Discern Analytics, a Silicon Valley forecasting firm, says there’s a case to be made that the Internet is helping to make individuals smarter. There have been studies showing that not just Web searches but also video games are good at stimulating and strengthening parts of the brain. Video games turn out to be amazing for the brain,â€ Lehrer says. â€œThey’re like doing pushups for the brain. â€But Saffo worries, too, that the Internet ethos of instant and ever-changing information can have its deleterious effects on society as a whole. â€œThe collective impact of this technology causes more people to look at and concentrate on the immediate at the expense of the long-term,â€ he says. This effect of everyone concentrating solely on the moment can lead to catastrophic mistakes and have an ill effect on democracy, Saffo suggests.
This is the dark side of the eternal present,â€ he says. â€œThere’s no capacity to step back and frame things in different ways. Anyone who dares think long-term will be taken down. â€In his Atlantic article and follow-up book The Shallows, Carr is careful to state that the Internet has been enormously beneficial in a number of ways. Critics of his book nevertheless contend that he has overstated the extent of the problems of concentration and deep thought created or exacerbated by technology. To the extent that people skim, get distracted or fail to think deeply about the words and images flitting across their screens â€” well, people have always found ways to avoid thinking too deeply. Long before Twitter, there were television sitcoms, Lehrer points out.
And long before people could waste time playing Minesweeper and Scrabble online, there were plenty of games made out of cardboard and plastic. But Carr argues that the Internet is not simply a tool for distraction and time wasting. He says it affects how the brain processes information.In his book, Carr cites studies showing that people reading short stories with hyperlinks embedded in them retain a good deal less of the content than people who read them on the printed page, because the need to make decisions about whether to click on the links keeps them from concentrating on the text at hand. â€œDozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning,â€ Carr writes in The Shallows. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book,â€ Carr continues, â€œbut that’s not the type of thinking that technology encourages and rewards. â€Getting used to technological distraction can cause problems in social settings, suggests Small, the UCLA psychiatrist.
â€œWe have a generation of digital natives with very strong techno-skills and very strong neuro pathways for multitasking and experiencing partial continuous attention and other wonderful adaptive skills,â€ Small says. But they’re not developing the face-to-face human contact skills. â€There isn’t strong data about this, Small says, but the idea that young people, especially, have more difficulty interacting with people in person when they are texting other people with near-constancy is evident all around us, he suggests. â€œThe Internet’s not making us stupid or smarter â€” it’s changing the way we’re processing information,â€ Small says. â€œYou cannot stop the technology train,â€ he adds. â€œIt’s way out of the station, coming down the tracks. You have to adapt.
â€Does the Web shorten attention ps?Human beings have always had a hard time sitting alone and staying quietly focused. The Internet has made this problem worse for many. It’s become common for people to complain that they no longer seem able to concentrate on one thing for very long. Most participants in a 2003 San Jose State University study said that they were reading more online but had difficulty giving â€œsustained attentionâ€ to the material. â€œI find that my patience with really long documents is decreasing,â€ a study participant said. â€œI want to skip ahead to the end of long articles. There are millions, if not billions, of Web pages and tens of thousands of smartphone applications, or â€œapps.
â€ On any given screen, demands for a user’s attention may come from text, audio, video, competing graphics and hyperlinks to yet more pages.Viewing a busy Web page may be interrupted by e-mail alerts and status updates from social-media sites. â€œI love the iPad,â€ said Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab, â€œbut my ability to read any long-form narrative has more or less disappeared, as I am constantly tempted to check e-mail, look up words or click through. Not everyone thinks the Internet and mobile devices are shortening their attention ps. A May New York Times/CBS News survey found that less than 30 percent of those under age 45 believed the use of such technology made it more difficult for them to focus, while fewer than 10 percent of older users agreed. â€œPeople who do need to focus find the time to focus,â€ says Tim O’Reilly, president of O’Reilly Media, a technology research firm. â€œThere’s plenty of focused thinking going on.
Even apparent distractions â€” getting pulled every which way by various stimuli â€” are not necessarily evidence that people are having a harder time paying attention, says Thompson, the professor of popular culture. â€œIt’s a different kind of attention p than a Victorian gentleman sitting down with a leather-bound book for two hours,â€ he says. â€œWhen I look at an 8-year-old playing these complex video games with other people, I’m not sure what’s going on there, but it’s sure not a lack of attention p.They’re completely focused with all these multiple inputs. â€ | But a recent study showed that young children and college students who exceeded a two-hour-per-day limit on watching television and playing video games had a harder time paying attention in class. â€œIn just one year, we would see attention problems in the classroom getting worse related to how much time kids are in front of television and video games,â€ said study coauthor Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University.And, Thompson concedes, playing video games and surfing the Net â€” a term that itself suggests skimming the surface â€” may lead only to facile thinking and not any great depth.
To get at something valuable on the Web, often a user will have to dig through a great deal of extraneous material â€” a task from which many people are distracted by the constant possibility of interruption. And other media are coming to resemble Web pages. Magazine designs now include multiple fonts, myriad graphics and shorter stories than used to be the case.Television news channels have also reformatted their presentations, including more than one video presentation at a time, lots of graphics and scroll bars of texts â€” â€œa ton of competing information everywhere,â€ says Larry D. Rosen, a psychologist at California State University-Dominguez Hills and author of two books about young people’s use of technology. â€œOur attention p basically has diminished,â€ he says. â€œOur ability to focus on a task without switching to another task has diminished.
It’s not an inherent change in the way we’re thinking.It’s a change in technology that forces us to change focus often. â€But some studies suggest that the Internet may, in fact, be changing the way we’re thinking. â€œThere is research that suggests the traits of attention deficit disorder are higher than they were a few years ago,â€ says Elias Aboujaoude, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University. There’s not yet good data showing a causal effect, he points out, noting it’s possible that people who already had attention-p problems may be more drawn to technology. But there’s a lot of correlational research that, at any point in time, people who spend a lot of time online have shorter attention ps,â€ Aboujaoude says. The amount of distractions now available to people is taking its toll, Aboujaoude argues.
â€œThe price we pay for all this is that we live in a sound-bite culture now,â€ he says. â€œAnything that requires concentration, deliberation, pondering, deep, entrenched difficult thought, we don’t have the attention for. â€It’s easy to make such claims and â€œto write scare stories about attention ps,â€ says Lehrer, the Wired blogger. But there’s value to the distractedness, too.Paying attention to a variety of things is a skill the Internet helps foster, Lehrer says. He compares it to the difference between walking for two miles through a busy city and walking through a quiet park. There’s a big supply of studies that walking through a city puts a â€œcognitive burdenâ€ on people because there are so many more things that compete for attention, he says.
But there’s real value to being in cities, which afford people all kinds of interactions and access to more commerce and culture â€” much like a few of the benefits of the Internet. â€œThe Internet is just like a city,â€ Lehrer says. It’s a trade-off, but in the end we’re willing to make the trade-off because it allows all sorts of new connections. â€Are people addicted to the Internet? California entrepreneur Kord Campbell uses technology â€” a lot. Not only is he running an Internet startup company, but he plays video games, follows 1,100 people on Twitter and often falls asleep with a laptop or an iPhone cradled on his chest. He has a hard time putting his devices away, whether on family vacations or commuting by subway to San Francisco. He knows that one tunnel will cost him exactly 221 seconds of time online.
Just before an important meeting is about to begin, Campbell can’t resist clicking on a link on Twitter to a story about a corpse. He finds himself annoyed that the article wasn’t interesting and gets distracted by a pop-up ad for jeans. â€œIt’s some article about something somewhere,â€ he said. Campbell looks at so many screens so much that he sometimes misses important e-mails, makes costly mistakes in online stores, burns hamburgers on the grill and forgets to pick up his children. His difficulty with the concept of logging off may be extreme, but it’s not unusual. I have friends and relatives that carry BlackBerrys with them 24 hours a day, fully prepared to drop anything in their lives and work at a moment’s notice,â€ said Tim O’Leary, the head of a marketing firm. â€œI’m tethered to my laptop as if it were an oxygen machine I must cart around to keep me breathing.
â€ | For Hilarie Cash, the problems people describe in trying to stay away from their computers and smartphones â€” such as poor nutrition, anxiety, irritability and the costs their habits impose on their relationships and work or schoolwork â€” are signs of â€œclassic addiction. Cash runs a treatment center for Internet and video game addiction in Redmond, Wash. She notes that both China and South Korea have named Internet addiction as primary public-health concerns. It doesn’t matter, she says, whether people are addicted to pornography, games or simply the small thrill of getting a new message in their e-mail in-box. â€œIf you’re Facebooking, you’re chatting, you’re doing something sexual that’s a lot of fun, then those reward pathways in the brain are lighting up and you’re in danger of getting addicted,â€ Cash says.The hit-and-miss nature of the Internet â€” with some websites being interesting, while many are not â€” may make it an especially seductive medium. People talk about the â€œdopamine squirt,â€ the little bit of chemical excitement that occurs in the brain when something of interest pops up on the computer screen.
Surfing the net or opening up e-mail, in this sense, is just like playing slot machines â€” you never know when you’re going to hit a winner, a state of uncertainty that leads sometimes to the strongest habits. That means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way,â€ said Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology at England’s University of Sheffield. â€œSo with e-mail, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there’s something wonderful â€” an invite out, or maybe some juicy gossip â€” and I get a reward. â€The standard diagnostic manual for mental disorders does not refer to excessive Internet use as an addiction. I like to save â€˜addictionâ€™ for obsessions that are rooted in a chemical basis,â€ such as drug and alcohol use, says John M. Staudenmaier, the editor of Technology and Culture. Many other technology experts shy away from the term addiction, which they think is a term too lightly used in media accounts.
Most people under the age of 20 may be clutching some kind of handheld device, says Syracuse University’s Thompson, but that has more to do with an expectation of availability to communicate at any given time than with a true compulsion.â€œWe have to be careful not to slip into generational nostalgia about this,â€ he says. Someone from 1870 looking at us before the Internet would have thought our lives were insanely complicated â€” allowing movie theaters into our homes with television, with constant music in the background. â€Rosen, the Cal State psychologist, says it’s not the amount of time you spend doing something that defines addiction, but its impact on other parts of your life. â€œIf you can’t be on vacation and not check your e-mail, then it’s disrupting your family life,â€ he says. â€œIf your wife is always complaining that she can’t get you off the computer to go to bed, then we’re talking about addiction. Others argue that, while people may spend excessive amounts of time browsing the Internet or texting, they can also spend too much time doing lots of other things.
â€œIf you applied these criteria to all kinds of behavior, it’s true about a lot of activities,â€ says Rainie, at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. â€œIf you’re a passionate user, you lose sleep, it takes away from other parts of your life. â€But kicking the Internet habit may take more than just a bit of self-discipline, says the University of Washington’s Levy.Just as doctors concerned with obesity talk about a â€œtoxic food environmentâ€ in which it’s easy to make bad choices about food, the ubiquity of the Internet makes it especially hard for some people to shut it off. â€œThe culture is making available and selling to us all kinds of things,â€ Levy says. â€œIt would be a hell of a lot easier to exercise personal discipline if we weren’t constantly being exposed to things. â€The term â€œaddictionâ€ itself may not be clinically accurate, suggests Aboujaoude, the Stanford psychiatrist, but certainly there is something tempting for many people about Internet use.
It’s only a matter of time before we isolate those parts of the brain that light up when we’re browsing or killing time on an app,â€ he says. For many observers, the question of whether people can truly be said to be addicted to the Internet is a matter of semantics. For millions of people, like California entrepreneur Campbell, it’s the first thing they turn to when they wake up and the last thing they do at night. â€œCall it addiction, call it human nature,â€ says Silicon Valley consultant Saffo. Samuel Johnson [the renowned 18th-century British author] observed that too often we go from anticipation to anticipation, and not from satisfaction to satisfaction. â€œThe problem is, we have more and more media temptations. With ever more capable technologies comes a greater burden to choose wisely and well.
â€| About the Author | Alan Greenblatt is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Currently, he writes about national and international news for NPR’s website. He has been a staff writer at Governing and Congressional Quarterly, where he won a National Press Club award for political journalism.
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