Stop Surfing


Notes and Thoughts


Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?


A guy named Nicholas Carr has written a book asserting that the Internet has changed the way our brains work–it’s making us less able to concentrate, he claims.

 The first time I heard his thesis, I kinda’ rebelled against it. I heard him on Fresh Air, the NPR interview program, and I agreed with interviewer Terry Gross, who kept suggesting that maybe we’re not getting stupider but smart in a different way.

Carr, however, came back with two points. First, he said, he found he was less and less able to read a book straight through; and second, he couldn’t formulate coherent thoughts by reading on the Internet in that typical Internet-way—skittering from website to website.

I must say I thought back to those points the other night when my friend Scott was gushing on about Apple’s new reader, the i-Tablet or whatever it’s called. The best thing about it, he said, was that you could load twenty books at a time, and as soon as you got tired of one book, you could go to another and the machine would remember where you were in every one.  

Of course, you don’t have to read twenty books at once, just because you can.  But I tell you, with technology, it seems to me, whatever you can do is hard to resist doing.  Technology doesn’t just open up more choices; it also mandates behavior.

Gross said that maybe those who have grown up with the new technology are going to be able to function with it and to formulate thought in ways that we older folks are neurally locked out of. While I was listening to her, I thought she was making a damned good point. And I still do. 

Carr, however, countered that when we read on the Internet, we read “shallow.”  We keep departing from a given line of thought to chase tangents. When we hyperlink away into hyperspace, we get a broad array of information and ideas, but we skim from the top of every topic. Skimming lets us spot the connection between two very disparate ideas; but it prevents us from relating two ideas that are connected in a very complicated way. 

So I’m thinking Gross has a point, but Carr has a point too. Reading intelligently consists of constructing meaning. Back in the old-days, when we read in the old-fashioned way, starting at page one and moving on to page-last, we gave ourselves up to someone else’s construction of meaning. We came to know a structure of meaning that someone had taken a lot of time to put together. If we constantly broke away from the author’s sustained line of thought, we simply wouldn’t get the point, because there are some concepts one simply cannot form unless one follows a long line of argument.  When we surf the Internet, by contrast, we’re collecting data that we need to construct meaning of our own, on the spot. And the structure we end up with may look grandiose, but it’s constructed of the most readily accessible bits of information. It’s a Taj Mahal made of straw.

I began to take Carr’s thesis more seriously when I came across a devastating related point. According to studies cited in Washington Post, kids now prefer to text than talk because it’s more efficient. I’ve seen this with my 19-year-old daughter Elina. I also see that lots of people have started interacting mainly on Facebook—that is, purely with text. The Post article points out that text doesn’t have the subtle additional information that comes from vocal inflections, facial expressions and the like. It also doesn’t have all the normal interactive stuff that happens between two people talking.

Two people talking is a bio-chemical event. The empathy that builds up is biological. When two people interact purely through text, the actual interaction is between a biological organism and a static object. The person who is presumably at the other end of the static object is an intellectual abstraction, based on the living organism’s internally-maintained conceptual framework.

Here’s where that rubber meets the road. On some standard personality tests, the Post reports, college kids today are registering 40% less capacity for empathy. Statistics can be iffy but a 40% drop! That’s not a borderline change. Something is happening.

And it’s not surprising.

It fits right in with the idea that empathy for a static object vested with personality through a feat of intellectual abstraction is going to be less instinctually passionate than empathy for a biological co-organism with whom one is in living interaction.

I say all this with a caveat: I msyelf spend 90 % of my waking hours in front of my computer, and if this device were a human being, it would be far and away my best friend.

3 thoughts on “Stop Surfing”

  1. Hi Tamim,

    Interesting article. Let me take a moment to totally dismiss the claim that college students have become less empathetic.

    In the study I think you’re talking about, students now were less likely than students tested in the 80s and 90s to agree with statements like: “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” This is not a measure of empathy. It’s a measure of how people want to portray themselves. I guess in the 80s and 90s, students wanted to think of themselves as empathetic, whereas students now recognize this type of sentence for what it is: totally cheesy and lame.

    A real measure of empathy is Milgram experiment, in which Milgram measured whether he could convince participants to administer what appeared to be possibly lethal electric shocks to another person. He found throughout the 60s and 70s that around 61-66% of participants would do this, students or not, men or women, and even when they were giving real electric shocks to a puppy. Of course, this type of thing is illegal now, so we’ll have to find new ways to remind ourselves of our own moral weaknesses.

    That issue aside, I think that the major point, that the internet might be hurting our attention spans, is a good one. I think the cause of our inability to sustain control over our own consciousness, though, predates the internet. It’s all too easy to sit down at a computer, and 2 hours and 200 software update alerts, virus warnings, “you didn’t eject safely” warnings, terms of service agreements, all demanding that we agree, agree, agree, yes, ok, accept — and yes, also the deceptive fake versions of those alerts on scam websites, failed searches, junk websites like that contain mostly ads and a bit of plagiarized information, endless threads of rambling blog comments going on and on and on. And on. — later, and we’ve totally forgotten why we sat down in front of the computer in the first place. Our graphical user interfaces (windows, mice, alert boxes) are made in such a way that they put us in a state of learned helplessness at our computers. Web sites copy this preexisting pattern, and the internet is the latest method of communication that can, and is, primarily exploited to anesthetize.


  2. Well said, Tamim. As a person who works virtually and is at the computer some 12 hours a day, I find myself in a love/hate relationship with the computer. I use it to work, to create, and to stay in touch with friends, but I find moments where I just want to throw it out the window entirely and move to the woods and SLOW DOWN. I dig in my heels at times … I sometimes don’t access the computer on weekends. I still read BOOKS and don’t have a Kindle. I still read the daily newspaper and take the NY Times on Sundays. That makes me … old and/or stubborn and/or deluded …. Oh well!

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