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The Internet

A Battle of Wits On the Net's Effect On the Mind 218 218

An anonymous reader writes "There's a fascinating duel going on between two Harvard-associated authors, Steven Pinker and Nicholas Carr, on the topic of the Net's influence on the mind. In a New York Times op-ed, Pinker criticizes Carr's argument, as laid out in his new book The Shallows, that our use of the Net is encouraging us to become distracted, superficial thinkers. The Net and other digital technologies 'are the only things that will keep us smart,' writes Pinker. In a response on his blog, Carr tears apart Pinker's argument, claiming that Pinker's examples should actually make us even more worried about the possible 'ill effects' the Net is having on our minds. Carr concludes, 'We're training ourselves, through repetition, to be facile skimmers, scanners, and message-processors — important skills, to be sure — but, perpetually distracted and interrupted, we're not training ourselves in the quieter, more attentive modes of thought: contemplation, reflection, introspection, deep reading, and so forth.' Behind the debate is the deeper controversy over whether the human brain is fundamentally adaptable ('neuroplasticity') or genetically locked into patterns of behavior ('evolutionary psychology')."
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A Battle of Wits On the Net's Effect On the Mind

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  • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot@@@hackish...org> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:20PM (#32557614)

    Slashdot's role is to provide a mostly uninformed but passionate argument between a few straw-man positions based on little evidence, but Pinker & Carr beat us to it.

  • I can see that (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:20PM (#32557616)

    I am extremely good at searching, skimming through the web. I always find relevant results faster than my coworkers.
    But I have to force myself to read a complicated paper properly. I can skim it 100 times and will still not have understood it. If I force myself to read it once properly, I gain much more, but it is harder to concentrate on (trained mind).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:22PM (#32557622)

    Ok, so what was radio's effect on the mind? TV? Telephone? c'mon... Not at all trying to troll, but this is the problem with the religion vs. science debate (at the least the problem with those who argue that science replaces or will replace religion and that is the way it should be). Science really insists that we ask and answer the right questions. Well, guess what we don't really know what the right questions on.. we handle that on a little bit of faith. Oh there's the scary F work ;)

  • Bob Lewis (Score:4, Insightful)

    by linuxwrangler (582055) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:24PM (#32557630)

    I liked Bob Lewis' commentary on Nicholas Carr. First he says IT doesn't matter, then the cloud is everything (er, um, IT matters after all) and now, IT matters but it's evil.

    Lewis lumps Carr into those who throughout history have proclaimed that X (where X=radio, movies, talkies, television, calculators, computers, video-games, cell-phones...) will be the ruination of society. And somehow society continues. I'm getting a bit tired of Carr and his ever failed proclamations.

    From the books by Pinker that I have read, he is a fascinating writer with a gift for clear explanations.

    http://www.infoworld.com/d/adventures-in-it/self-proclaimed-experts-predict-ruination-new-technologies-ignore-them-489?page=0,0 [infoworld.com]

  • by roman_mir (125474) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:41PM (#32557746) Homepage Journal

    When I say 'deep thinker', I am talking about a person who can concentrate on a topic and stay on it, approach the topic from different points of view, rotate it around, see various perspectives, remove the fluff and arrive at some useful conclusion (for various degrees of 'useful'). Thinking through something is about forming an opinion on the subject that is reflected from within, not imposed upon, it is ability to sift through the information and prune the useful or the 'good' from the rest of it, ability to use logic and imagination to derive a satisfactory result.

    I don't believe everybody is mentally capable of it, and out of those who are capable only a small minority ever gets to do it.

    I do not imply that getting into a conflict is a necessary part of this process, so telling your boss, or joining some activist group is not required.

    I think Carr is arguing that with the Web constantly showing us something shiny dancing to techno, we never fall back on that natural reflection.

    - people who want to, always find something 'shiny dancing to techno' whether with or without the Internet.

    Smart or dumb. What good is a smart person when he does not use his brain?

    - maybe they are pretty to look at? I don't know 'what good' is anybody really, except that some are more useful for progress and some are just 'useful idiots'.

  • by Alien7 (310889) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:44PM (#32557772)

    Isn't the very fact that we are discussing this issue via the internet disprove Carr's argument? Is this not a deep thinking issue, or does the topic that he picked to write his entire book on a shallow baseless bit of info that no one will take the time to thoroughly discuss?

    I spend most of my online time debating philosophy and theology on youtube. YouTube! Supposedly the most shallow attention deficit form of media. I've been geared toward philosophy and deep thinking since childhood. If nothing else the internet give me access to peers who are willing to discuss intellectual topics, which are few and far between in my everyday life. No one wants to talk Religion at the bar, no one in my personal life is willing to take the time to learn about Quantum Physics. The internet gives me output for my deep philosophical thoughts I wouldn't otherwise have. Technology is a tool, it doesn't fundamentally change human nature.

  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:44PM (#32557774)

    our use of the Net is encouraging us to become distracted, superficial thinkers.

    Our education (or lack thereof) is encouraging us to become distracted, superficial thinkers. A constant deluge of advertisements, commercials, billboards, 30 second sound-clips, etc., isn't helping. Critical thinking is a skill, not a talent -- as such, it is learned. Blaming an inanimate pile of wires, servers, and routers on that is absurd.

    The Net and other digital technologies 'are the only things that will keep us smart'

    Human intellectual capacity hasn't significantly altered in over 16,000 years. The internet is not, in the span of one or even five generations, going to change it.

    'We're training ourselves, through repetition, to be facile skimmers, scanners, and message-processors -- important skills, to be sure -- but, perpetually distracted and interrupted, we're not training ourselves in the quieter, more attentive modes of thought: contemplation, reflection, introspection, deep reading, and so forth.'

    That training has nothing to do with the internet. It is the byproduct of paradigm shifts in how we socialize with one another. The internet may have enabled that, but by no means is it solely or even largely responsible for it.

  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:46PM (#32557790)

    Slashdot's role is to provide a mostly uninformed but passionate argument between a few straw-man positions based on little evidence, but Pinker & Carr beat us to it.

    Which is exactly why we have NASA engineers and some of IT's top minds making posts and comment submissions, amongst many others. I'd say slashdot's average post quality is a lot more informed than, say, 4Chan.

  • Re:I can see that (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Kral_Blbec (1201285) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:47PM (#32557796)
    Is it better to be 99.9% accurate after 1 hour or 95% accurate after 5 minutes?
    It depends on the application of course. In many ways being able to pull relevant information from the internet is just helping us get 97% accuracy in 10 minutes. Its the best of both worlds.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:47PM (#32557804)

    In my experience, most people abhor the "more attentive modes of thought" and avoid them at all costs.

    Those few who like such modes of thought actively create opportunities to engage in them.

    The net caters to both groups.

    That is all.

  • Close (Score:2, Insightful)

    by copponex (13876) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:54PM (#32557860) Homepage

    Slashdot is here to provide tepidly intellectual nerds some dick grabbing space so they can pretend to be more knowledgeable than Harvard professors on topics outside of their expertise.

    Here are Pinker's credentials [wikipedia.org]:

    Pinker... graduated from Montreal's Dawson College in 1973. He received a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology from McGill University in 1976, and then went on to earn his doctorate in the same discipline at Harvard in 1979. He did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a year, after which he became an assistant professor at Harvard and then Stanford University. From 1982 until 2003, Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. (Except for a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1995-6.) As of 2008, he is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

    Where are yours?

  • by JustinOpinion (1246824) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:56PM (#32557876)
    In some sense the argument between Pinker and Carr is a variant of the classic "nature vs. nurture" dichotomy. Of course, both Pinker and Carr are knowledgeable enough that they do not cast it so simply. Both of them acknowledge that the basic framework of the brain/mind is established by evolution, but that considerable learning/modification can occur within that framework based on experience and training.

    This makes their disagreement a rather more subtle one that the media reports would have us believe. And, actually, far more subtle than either of those op-eds addresses.

    The actual disagreement isn't about whether evolution establishes mental modules, or whether experience can modify the brain (both of these are well-established as being true; and both Pinker and Carr would broadly agree with these statements). The real disagreement is over assertions like when Carr says:

    We're training ourselves, through repetition, to be facile skimmers, scanners, and message-processors - important skills, to be sure - but, perpetually distracted and interrupted, we're not training ourselves in the quieter, more attentive modes of thought: contemplation, reflection, introspection, deep reading, and so forth.

    One can easily grant that we are probably training ourselves to be good at fast skimming, scanning and message-processing (search engines, email, etc.). However Carr seems to be generalizing from this to assume that we are therefore spending less time on contemplation and deep thought. Pinker seems to disagree (implying that deep thought has always been a difficult activity and is probably given as much practice/attention today as it ever was). But neither one provides much evidence. In both cases they point to more tangential evidence.

    Obviously an op-ed isn't the best venue for a detailed analysis of scientific literature, but the fact that there is no slam-dunk evidence presented in either leads me to believe this question is still very much unsolved. In this sense, neither of them should be quite as confident in their stated opinions.

    At a minimum, we as readers shouldn't draw any deep conclusions from the flimsy evidence those two op-eds present. What I'm really concerned about is that the vast majority of readers will use the two op-eds purely for confirmation bias. Neither one presents a highly convincing case, so readers will simply focus on believing the tidbits from the article that supported their preconception.

  • by Scrameustache (459504) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @02:07PM (#32557930) Homepage Journal

    those who are impatient and not very deep will not bother to look for information through other, slower means.

    You can't fix "willfully ignorant" by providing convenient information. I've had arguments with people who were next to a running computer and they would NOT look up the info that proved I was right. Because they weren't arguing to get to the truth, they were arguing to get social status, to "win" an argument.

  • Re:I can see that (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @02:21PM (#32558008) Journal
    Can you honestly not think of any areas of "true productive work" where minor matters like "precision" and "details" and "getting it right" matter at least as much as they do in philosophy?(arguably more, since fucking up a philosophy paper just means risking the disesteem of your peers, while fucking up an engineering project means buffer overflows and/or explosions...)
  • Re:I believe this (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Narpak (961733) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @02:21PM (#32558010)

    Its a dangerous tool. In some respects, in the earlier days, its enabled me to push my personal boundaries, but if youre not careful, it can lead to reliance. Its like an addiction, with all the negatives that a narcotic might have.

    First of all there are negatives that some narcotics have that internet usage does not; like actually physical dependency. But besides that; yes you can get addicted to "the internet" just like you can get addicted to anything. An unsatisfied mind looks for distraction.

    However IF internet use automatically leads to procrastination is something I highly doubt. But no doubt for those without a clear idea of what they want do can easily fall into a loop of, most often, mediocre entertainment clips, games, and debates.

  • by zwei2stein (782480) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @02:50PM (#32558174) Homepage

    Internet "semi expert" is just a myth and self-dellusion.

    In order to make meaningfull contribution to any field, you need comperehensive knowledge of subject or else you will fall into traps many have already fallen and walk into dead ends. Not to mention constant need of aditional info that slows you down.

    You can obtain skills easily and they will serve you good, but only for shallow usage. You can confuse reading few wikipedia articles with becoming semi-expert, as in truth you just added few bits of trivia to your repertoire.

    You can read tutorial for new programing language and start coding small fry utility in less than hour, but small chat with veteran will quickly reveal how much you still have to learn to play with "big boys"

    You can become familiar with some historial event in order to understant it causes, impact and context, you will just not be able to hold conversation about it with someone who knows.

    In university, our teacher explicitly allowed internet access during exams (as well as cheat sheets and book and notes). He was confident that it would be useless for students and he was true - his tests required understanding of subject rather than memorized facts; anyone who attempted to pass it with google and empty head failed it.

    It demostrated rather well what happens when your knowledge of subject is lacking and that applying books/internet to patch it is doomed to fail.

    People become zen masters of useless trivia rather than knowledge with net.

    This reminds me of "How to bluff about X" (X being classical music or physics or wines) series of pocket books: Quick surge of useless knowledge. Paper form of internet. Anyone wanting more than few keywords and bullet points simply needs to study subject comprehensivelly.

  • by Fantastic Lad (198284) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @03:16PM (#32558348)


    -The analogy I was tinkering with before I ran across your summation was, "Hey, human brains are routinely used to entertain stupid, vapid thoughts, so brains should be banned. And I'm suspicious of human hands as well; consider how often they are used to do stupid, dangerous things!"

    The medium is the message, yes; we are always changed by any medium we use frequently. But honestly. . , we can choose the websites we visit. I use my computer to read books as well as watch youtube videos and everything in between. I know a LOT more today than I did ten years ago, and that's largely thanks to humans communicating freely on the web.

    I think, though, for me the single most powerful, can't find it anywhere else, value of the web is that of forum discussion. I can have personal illusions and false info blasted to pieces faster on line than anywhere else. There are universities and various gatherings where people can discuss and compare knowledge, but that's not available or as fast. (Which, coincidentally, is one of the reasons I think the iPad is a giant brain-damper. You can't type! It turns the information flow back into a one-way street, where people are no longer doing but instead passively sit down to be programmed with the daily download, fed public consensus rather than building their own.)

    But sure, if you fritter away your on-line energies, then you won't reap much overall. You get out what you put in. Just like life.


  • Re:Battle of Wits? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ultranova (717540) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:20PM (#32559304)

    The fundamental argument they are having is whether or not deep thinkers learn to be deep thinkers or if they are born to be deep thinkers.

    Which is an idiotic argument since "deep thinking" simply means that you keep going over the same thing over and over again, refining the finer points, figuring out how it relates to other things you know and how its parts relate to each other, and following the new insights this reveals. "Deep" thinking is not different than "shallow" thinking, it just means that you keep thinking about something longer and understanding it on a deeper level - which, of course, means that you'll have less time to go over other topics.

    Every human being thinks some things deeply and others shallowly due to having only limited processing power and time available. The Internet tilts the balance to the "shallow" direction simply because it increases the amount of incoming data, leaving less time to process any particular item, but this no more make you unable to think deeply than your eyes adjusting to dark make you blind in light - sure it does, for a few dozen seconds.

    As for a solution, the sooner we can upload our minds to computers, or at the very least hooking them up, the faster we can start benefiting from Moore's law and adding more lobes to handle all the incoming data - which, of course, will also increase the amount of data produced. Argh.

  • Re:I can see that (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ultranova (717540) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @06:39PM (#32559394)

    For all practical purposes, there's not a huge difference between memorizing entire books and being able to quickly pull the same information off Google when you need it. It's now less about what you know, and more about how you can actually use that knowledge.

    True, but I've noticed something when observing people who are trying to learn something: facts are like pieces of puzzle: You can have a set of facts that are correct, relevant and sufficient, but unless you know how they connect to each other, you have nothing but a mess.

    You can skim a missing puzzle piece from Google, and in fact can often work around not having it. But if you don't have the Big Picture... then your work ends up in your profession's equivalent of The Daily WTF [thedailywtf.com], and rightfully so.

    That's the point of education, IMHO: to give the people The Big Picture. You can't compensate for not knowing details, but you can't compensate for not having any idea WTF you're trying to do.

    That's also why almost every non-fiction book begins with an introduction, and why you should always read it; all too often it's self-congratulatory droning, but it also gives you a clear idea of what the book's about. Next read through the table of contents. Only then start reading the actual book.

    And so on and so forth. The same thing always comes through: people who know the Big Picture can use the information they have, while the people who don't know it don't really benefit from their bag of factoids except completely by random.

    That's the real problem with Googling things. Google returns random facts in no particular order, so it'll take a long time establishing them into some kind of model so you can actually use them and add more. A book, on the other hand, goes through things in order, the later chapters building on things covered in the former, so you can simply read it - assuming the writer's any good, of course. It's far more efficient for picking up new things, while Googling is more efficient for checking details.

  • Re:I can see that (Score:2, Insightful)

    by endymion.nz (1093595) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @07:15PM (#32559630)
    The usefulness of this skill depends on whether you value finding and regurgitating facts (eg case law, or dissection of pop culture) more than you like making new thoughts with your brainmeats. Life somewhat compels one towards the former.

If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts. -- Albert Einstein