Nick Carr insists that the Internet is wrecking our brains. But not everyone shares Carr’s techno-cultural pessimism. One of the most articulate champions of the Internet’s positive impact on our mental cognition is the Duke University professor Cathy Davidson, whose book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn argues that the Internet is both the cause and effect of our more dynamically connected brains.
As Davidson explained to me via Skype, we are living in the 21st century not only with 20th century institutions, but also with an archaic understanding of what the brain represents. Whereas we used to think of the brain as a piston-like industrial machine, she explains, today we understand that the brain is a network and its role is of a connector of disparate things. It was no coincidence, Davidson thus argues, that the schools of the industrial age focused on building learning skills – such as timeliness and order – which reflected the hierarchical structure of mechanical society.
But today, Davidson argues, in an age where the old hierarchies of industrial society have been swept away by the networked realities of our digital age, it’s critical to allow the brain to flourish as a network. So Davidson’s advice to parents worried about their kids’ obsession with online gaming or social networking is very simple. “Relax”, she says. Let the brain as a network flourish. Multitasking is the new cognitive reality. And the sooner our 20th century institutions recognize this, the sooner we can drag them into the 21st century.