Erik Larson

Dec 17, 2013

Help! The Web is Making Me Stupid (and I like it)

Nicholas Carr wrote a book in 2012 about how the Web threatens (yes “threatens”, not “enhances”) cognitive capabilities like concentration and learning. His book, appropriately titled The Shallows, started out as an article that appeared in the Atlantic in 2008, appropriately titled Is Google Making Us Stupid? In that article—and subsequently and in more depth in The Shallows—Carr suggested that the Web is “chipping away [our] capacity for concentration and contemplation.” [Reader: “What’s this about the Web? Oh no! Wait, a text. Who’s Facebooking me? Check out this video! Wait, what’s this about the Web? Who’s making us stupid??? Lol.”] Yes, maybe Carr has a point.

And he’s not alone in sounding an increasingly vocal alarm about the potential downside of all this immersion in modern online technology—the Web. After his provocative Atlantic article, a spate of other books and articles (many of them published, ironically, on the Web) started appearing: the seminal You Are Not a Gadget in 2010 by computer scientist Jaron Lanier, and missives on the dangers of social networking, like the Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? a couple of years later, in 2012, (again in The Atlantic) or the New Yorker’s How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy earlier this year.

And the trend continues. Witness the Atlantic Cities latest warning shot about the explosion of online digital photographing, How Instagram Alters Your Memory. Peruse this latest (remember—if only you can—that you won’t read it that deeply) and you’ll discover that as we’re running around capturing ubiquitous snapshots of our lives—from the banal to the, well, less banal—we’re offloading our memory and our natural immersion in natural environments to our digital devices. Study after study indeed confirms a real (and generally negative) link between cognitive functioning and use of Web technologies. And yet, we’re all online, with no end in site. What gives?

We can ask the “what gives?” question in a slightly different way, or rather we can break it into a few parts to get a handle on all this (somewhat ironically) surface discussion of the Web and us. To whit:

(a) Assuming all these articles—and the scientific studies they cite—are on to something, what makes the “Web” translate into a shallow “Human” experience? What is about modern digital technology that generates such an impovishered cognitive-social climate for us?

As a corrolary to (a), we might ask the slightly self-referential or Escher-like question about why the “Web” just seems so darned opposite to most of us: why does it seem to enhance our “smarts” and our abilities from doing research based on Web searches to capturing moments with digital photography for Instagram. Why, in other words, are we in the semi-delusional state of thinking we’re increasing our powers overall, when science tells us that the situation is much different? While we seem to gain access to information and “reach” with Web use, we appear to be losing “richness”—capacities that are traditionally associated with deep thinking and learning? (Capacities, in other words, that we would seem to require, more so today than perhaps ever.)

(b) Swallowing the hard facts from (a), what are we to do about it? At least two scenarios come to mind: (1) “Do” less technology. Go Amish, in other words. Or failing that, read an actual book from time to time. Couldn’t hurt, right?

(2) Change technology or our relationship to technology itself. This is an intriguing possibility, for a number of reasons. One, as no less than the philosopher Heidegger once commented (in typical quasi-cryptic fashion), viewing any technology as merely instrumental is the paragon of naivete. We make technology, then it goes about re-making us, as [] once remarked. The words are more true today than ever. And so, if we’re stuck with technology, and it’s true that the affects of technology on us is ineliminable (there is no true instrumentalism), then it follows that our salvation as it were must lie in some changes to technology itself. This scenario might range from tinkering to revolution; it all depends on our innovativeness, our sense of a real and felt need for change, and of course our ability to concentrate on the problem long enough to propose and implement some solutions (please, Google, don’t make us stupid so quickly that we can’t solve the problem of Google making us stupid…).

In what follows, then, I’m going to take a look at (a) in a bit more detail. The aim here will be to convince the reader beyond any reasonable doubt that there really is a problem, and that we’re headed in the wrong direction, appearances to the contrary (perhaps). And secondly I’ll be arguing that there’s something like a creative and forward-looking at least partial solution to (b); namely, that once we understand the cognitive-social model we’re implicitly adopting when (over) using the Web, we can re-design parts of the Web itself in ways that help mitigate or even reverse the damage we’re doing, and in the process (and with a little serendipity) we might also help accelerate or usher in a tech revolution. It’s exciting stuff, in other words, so I hope we can all concentrate long enough to… (apologies, apologies).

On (a) - What’s up with that?