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A Battle of Wits On the Net's Effect On the Mind 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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  • depends on a person (Score:5, Interesting)

    by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:21PM (#32557618) Homepage Journal

    Most people have never been, are not and will never be deep thinkers able to contemplate beyond the moment, that's not what most people are by their nature, they are mostly very involved with the current and cannot bother to think at all beyond an established routine.

    Then there are those who are thinking and contemplating and imagining regardless of the surrounding environment. The Internet gives us ability to get information very quickly and to test our points of view through many people, sort of like peer review of the thoughts.

    I vote that the Internet makes smart people smarter and that those who are dumb benefit from ability to get to information quicker than they ever could (if they ever could before, because those who are impatient and not very deep will not bother to look for information through other, slower means.)

  • by Concerned Onlooker ( 473481 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:30PM (#32557670) Homepage Journal

    I don't know about the attention problems created or not created by the Net, but I can say that the internet is making me dumber in one aspect, and that is spelling and grammar. In the old days most news and information was filtered through professional organizations, and irrespective of the veracity of such reports at least the grammar and spelling was usually close to perfect.

    These days I am exposed to so much bad spelling and grammar that it is having an effect on me. I increasingly find myself not even noticing spelling errors, which bothers me.

  • I believe this (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Smoke2Joints ( 915787 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:31PM (#32557680) Homepage

    I have seen it in myself just recently.

    Having been a fairly intellectual person, in the past 5 years or so I have noticed a distinct lack of patience, memory, and attention, and also find it hard to really sit down and get into something - at least until Ive forced myself to and have done it for a while, then I dont even think about it. Quite often now I sit at the PC here intending to browse the web for something relevant to my interests and just have no idea what I want to search for, so Ill instead browse the recommended lists on youtube, or randomly browse wikipedia. Ill let the internet tell me what to pursue instead of thinking for myself.

    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. Im not entirely sure what to do about it, short of ditching it completely - but then again, my JOB is the internet as well!

  • by Bob9113 ( 14996 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:37PM (#32557730) Homepage

    I can't speak for anyone else, but while I do skim the news on Google and Slashdot, I also often delve.

    When I saw an article, for example, on CDOs and their role in the 2008 collapse, I spent a couple hours diving into the depths of credit derivatives. Ultimately this led to studying the 1987 S&L collapse and to compare and contrast the two situations. It was very enlightening and all the research was carried out via the Internet.

    Is the Internet the cause of facile perusal as he implies?

    Is it the the motivating force behind my deeper study?

    I would suggest it is neither, or both. It is a means for both skimming and deep traversal. While one might argue that Twitter or Facebook facilitates and hence encourages interruption, one could as easily argue that Wikipedia or The Bureau of Economic Analysis do as much to encourage deep consideration.

    I might suggest that there is another cause for his observation: Perhaps he is looking at popular media and its place on the Internet. I think it is reasonable to claim that The New York Times has become more oriented toward trite sound bites during the explosion of the Internet. To this, however, I would ask; correlation or causation? Has the Internet made the New York Times shift, or has mass media been shifting toward bland wire stories and hot-talk editorials independently?

  • by presidenteloco ( 659168 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:38PM (#32557736)

    We are framing the debate incorrectly. Rather than ask what its effect on the individual human being is (an interesting question but not the centrally important one), we should be asking what is the overall effect on "intelligence resident on Earth" of the combination of humans + computers & the net.

    Because clearly, humans + the net of computers is becoming a collective intelligence.

    The intelligence and knowledge, is no longer located within an individual person, but rather within the distributed knowledge and communication infrastructure as a whole. We have made our environment, our tools semi-intelligent, and it is becoming irrelevant to ask how much does a person know about the world. The most salient question is, how capable is that person of learning continuously, and how much epistemology do they know and practice; in other words, are they capable of continual theory modification without excess belief commitment, and can they use a principled approach to assessing the credibility and consistency of information in an only semi-coherent sea of information from multiple sources. If they can do these things, they can become a zen master of much of human knowledge; they can become an instant semi-expert in any field that does not require automatic (body) knowledge. Make no mistake. The relevant competition (and co-operation) that will take place going forward will be between these "renaissance person" dialectical minds, enhanced by the net's collective knowledge.

    What will that be like, we ought to ask, and yes, also, what will it be like for those who cannot adapt to, or for economic reasons cannot plug into, the presence of an intelligent environment.

  • Re:I can see that (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Urza9814 ( 883915 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:38PM (#32557738)

    Yes, but is reading such papers truly necessary? I mean perhaps in academia...if you want to teach Philosophy or languages or something...but for true productive work, what does it matter? The way I look at it, the internet has made it matter less how much you know and more how much you can find and use. 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.

  • Twas Ever Thus... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by careysub ( 976506 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:42PM (#32557758)

    Have we fully come to terms with the devastating effect that the written word has had on our minds?

    In 800 BCE, before the Greeks began to write things down, Homer (or another man by the same name :-)) could compose and recite two vast epic tales - the Iliad and the Odyssey - purely from memory. In the ages before writing prodigious feats of memorization were essential for cultural transmission, and evidence shows that Australian Aborigines have carried traditions down intact across tens of thousands of years. What literate person today could even dream of carrying out such immense tasks of memorization?

    Information technology has always affected how we use our brains, and exploiting new capabilities is inevitably associated with allowing older modes of mental information processing and storage to languish. No doubt similar cries of alarm were issued at every earlier information innovation.

    In other news, there has been a devastating loss in flint-knapping skill, which takes many years of practice and apprenticeship to perfect. This skill has been essential to the human race for almost all of its existence, having been replaced only in the last few percent of the species history by new-fangled metal-working technology. We won't know for another 4000 generations or so if metal will have the longevity as trusty old flint.

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:51PM (#32557842) Homepage Journal

    Well, details matter, don't they? We've had these debates before, but we were debating different things.

    Radio and TV had huge impacts on culture, but nothing like the web's impact on what is like to be an intellectual. Ultimately the web's impact on culture is going to be much larger than TV or radio -- probably more like the invention of the printing press.

    What bothers me about these debates is the assumption that change is necessarily entirely good or entirely bad. When things change, humanity adjusts to a new reality that is sometimes much better than what went before, but never entirely satisfactory.

    Take books. We often take the invention of books a baseline case that has no drawbacks. Books give us access to the words and thoughts of people we've never met or who are long dead. Furthermore that access is much more direct an unmediated than the hearsay of oral tradition. But does that mean we only gained, and lost nothing?

    I think we probably lost some things with the invention of books. For one thing you can't have anything like orthodoxy without books. Books means you can be educated by the state or religious authorities and then then examined to ensure conformity. The invention of the printing press really destroyed oral tradition, replacing it with commercial popular culture. Now instead of retelling local legends and myths, we recount episodes of "Lost". We may have lost a kind of psychological richness by moving from stories that moved through hundreds or even thousands of storytellers to stories that are created in fixed form. "King Arthur" was the "Harry Potter" of the Middle Ages, but the idea that story must not be touched to remain authentic, that it is even the property of the author means it's unlikely we'll be reading "Harry Potter" hundreds of years from now.

    Does this mean we should give up on books or the printing press? Obviously not. It's just that no change comes for free, and great gains aren't made without some corresponding loss.

  • Battle of Wits? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gyrogeerloose ( 849181 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @01:54PM (#32557858) Journal

    More like a battle of half-wits. Both positions are equally incorrect.

    Shallow, superficial thinkers are going to use the Internet in shallow, superficial ways. Facebook and Twitter come immediately to mind but there are a myriad of ways to waste time on the Web. Deeper thinkers will use the Internet as a resource, a way to find information rather than for entertainment purposes alone. And it can't be denied that the ease of access to information is what has made the Internet the truly revolutionary thing that it is. It's changed everything. Yes, it's true, a lot of the information on the Web is not very good but most people have come to the realization on their own. If anything, that has actually created a larger group of skeptical, critical thinkers than ever before.

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

    by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @02:08PM (#32557934)

    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. If thinking deeply is a learned behavior, then Carr may have a good argument. Then you move on to the specifics of whether or not the Internet promotes skimming or thinking deeply (my opinion is it depends greatly on where you go on the internet). If deep thinkers are born that way, then it doesn't matter.

    My personal opinion is that it is a bit of both - some people are naturally deep thinkers, most people aren't, and there are varying degrees of that trait. The trait can be encouraged or discouraged through life experience, but I don't think it can ever be eliminated where it has always existed nor created where it has not. The internet is simply a tool that can be used by both skimmers to skim more information faster, and deep thinkers to connect and share with other deep thinkers. It is very useful for both cases, but I don't think by itself it promotes anything. A skimmer will use it to find what a skimmer is interested in, and a deep thinker will use it for what a deep thinker is interested in. They aren't mutually exclusive.

    This is based on nothing more than an amature interest in psychology, so take it as you will.

  • by JustinOpinion ( 1246824 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @02:13PM (#32557964)
    I agree.

    In a modern context, it's almost unfair to test a person's intelligence when you've deprived them of the intellectual infrastructure they've built around themselves. So asking a person to solve a contrived problem without giving them access to the Internet, for instance, it not an accurate measure of how intelligent that person would "really be" in the real world.

    Of course you could say that letting people use the Internet or calculators isn't testing their own personal intelligence. Then again, if you ask them a math problem, are they cheating if they use a piece of scrap paper to work it out? Are they cheating if they use the symbols and tricks of mathematics that they've learned? The evolution of humankind has been one of building better and better tools to allow us to externalize computation and abstract-away mental problems so that the brain itself can concentrate on the important part of the thought-process. So language, books, symbolic mathematics, calculators, computers, the Internet... these all build up our intelligence by allowing us to out-source mental tasks (whether they be tasks like short-term memory, where scrap paper can work wonders, or large computations, where computers can help, or tedious search, where the Internet saves the day...).

    Putting aside doomsday scenarios ("What if all the infrastructure fails? We won't know how to feed ourselves?"), the prevailing counter-argument is that by outsourcing we make the human at the center of the technology "dumb". Historical evidence suggests otherwise (each "outsourcing of thought" has enabled us to tackle harder problems). (Another argument goes along the lines of "you need to be smart enough to use the tech"... e.g. you need to know how to add and multiply otherwise a calculator is useless to you. This is absolutely true and so it will continue to be the case that humans need to build up skills of those sorts, including skills related to deep contemplation. But that doesn't mean that we need to strip away calculator-like tools to do that.)

    And, your focus on the collective as a whole really does frame this argument in a better way. Does it matter if the human is getting "dumber" by some metric... if what he/she actually accomplishes and experiences day-to-day is actually greater and more amazing? The fact that "me+Internet" can have a detailed realtime argument with another "person+Internet" somewhere else on Earth, each of us bringing massive amounts of knowledge and computation to bear in the argument, is, in my opinion, a net gain in human mental performance, even if the solitary "me" would be useless if abandoned in a forest. And even if solitary "me" has a shorter attention span.
  • Re:Battle of Wits? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @02:14PM (#32557972) Journal
    That isn't really the question, though. The question isn't how people of a particular type will interact with technology X, the question is what sorts of people regular interaction with technology X, from early childhood up, will produce.

    Unless you adopt the (almost certainly nonsensical) position that everybody is entirely born, not made, you have to concede some degree of environmental influence on people's eventual properties(the degree of that influence is certainly a matter of debate; but almost certainly isn't zero).

    Now, I'm largely of the opinion that most of the "old media" types are basically whiny, nostalgic, curmugeons, who look back fondly on the days when we had "quality" and "gatekeepers"(that consisted largely of people like them deciding what did or didn't get printed). Some truly excellent stuff has, certainly, been printed; but most of print has always been yellow journalism, pulp novels, tabloids, picture books, and propaganda. The same shit as the internet; but less convenient. The other thing that irks me about the "old media" types is that many of them seem blind to the fact that much of what may have made their medium valuable(see any of the stuff about he value of the "fourth estate"/journalism to democracy) had already been gutted and sold for scrap by the rise of TV well before the internet was anything more than a research toy for a few tech-heads with university affiliations.

    The internet is the new and shiny, and thus catches the flack; but, in many respects, the "old media" that it is busy killing is basically a shambling, undead, caricature of itself. A bunch of 24-hour talking heads opinion-driven shout-down shows, supine corporate mouthpiece newspapers, and parasitic journals selling scientists their own work at a fat markup. The "old media" types seem to make the mistake of assuming that the "new media" kiddies hate them and want to accelerate their demise because they are just juvenile vandals who wouldn't know a cogently expressed thought if it bit them in the ass, rather than considering the possibility that they are either ossified or rotten.
  • by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @02:26PM (#32558040)

    In both cases, you're still skimming (though one a bit deeper than the other, it's still surface).

    Basically Carr is pissing and moaning that nobody really contemplates life, the universe, and existence any more. What the dumbass misses is the fact that historically, almost nobody contemplated life, the universe, and existence. It's the reason that when we think of the great thinkers in history, we go back to about a handful of guys, and half their ideas turned out to be half-cocked.

    He makes the typical mistake of assuming things were better in the past, when in fact they weren't. Thinking is great, but it is literally worthless if everything you think about is completely wrong. Free access to information allows thinkers to build on the past with accurate information, instead of being doomed to waste time repeating someone else's mistakes.

    There has been no great proportional shift against deep thinkers, they have always been few and far between. If it seems like their are more shallow thinkers today, it's because there are: there are significantly more people today. There are also more deep thinkers, but they have never gotten the attention they deserved in their lifetime. To see few lauded thinkers today is nothing new, the lauded thinkers are always those of yesteryear, who's ideas have had time to come to fruition and have proven their value. The internet, in fact, makes it easier to find and build on modern thinkers today, if one is so inclined, instead of waiting decades for the information to eek out.

  • by arielCo ( 995647 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @03:26PM (#32558402)

    Pray tell!

    When I met /. I was impressed with the jewels one could find, and moderation filters out a lot of the dross. Now I'm really curious about those "places" you speak of.

  • Re:Right here (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Trepidity ( 597 ) <delirium-slashdot&hackish,org> on Sunday June 13, 2010 @03:56PM (#32558536)

    Yeah, my skepticism is largely because I'm in academia. I think I would've been more impressed by that list of credentials before I got into "the game". Now I want to see evidence, not CV lines.

  • Re:Twas Ever Thus... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gad_zuki! ( 70830 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @04:33PM (#32558700)

    Speaking and reading are two very different things. The GP is right. We are made for fucking and fighting and little else.

    >which adapts naturally to written language and symbolic computation.

    There's nothing natural about reading and writing. Its a technology. Writing is very much a recent invention. Your generous use of the use "naturally" is far from convincing.

  • Shallow English (Score:3, Interesting)

    by b4upoo ( 166390 ) on Sunday June 13, 2010 @04:48PM (#32558756)

    In the U.S. there has been a distinct lack of ability to speak anything other than the most primitive English. It started well before computers were common but it is a growing problem. Without fairly deep language skills thought is always second rate. It would be easy to understand if the people involved spoke English as a second language but what I am observing is that Americans that have had families here for generations are very limited in their speech and understanding. It is frightening to me.

  • Re:Twas Ever Thus... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 13, 2010 @07:14PM (#32559620)

    What literate person today could even dream of carrying out such immense tasks of memorization?

    theatrical actors are the first one that come to my mind

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