No, The Internet Won't Make You Stupid

Nick Carr is worried the Internet is making us stupid. It’s not so much our preoccupation with LOLCat photos or videos of fat girls flying off of swings that concerns him as it is the way we read and consume information on the Internet itself. He thinks the Internet is rewiring our brains, perhaps for the worse, and he’s written a book to warn us all about it called The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Carr also finds links to be too distracting.

Carr raises some good points worth contemplating, but his arguments also strike me as incredibly self-serving. After all, he is an author who makes money writing books. Of course he is going to argue that they make you smarter than the Web, with all of its neurological distractions. Carr is the master of technological alarmism. It sells his books and provokes debate, and this time is no exception. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker wrote in the New York Times on Friday that “cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk,” and NYT Bits blogger Nick Bilton marshaled some other counter-evidence as well. Carr then responded to Pinker’s Op-Ed at length, claiming that Pinker has an “axe to grind here” because Carr’s point that experiences can change the brain on a cellular level “poses a challenge to Pinker’s faith in evolutionary psychology.” Of, course, Carr has his own axe to grind. Remember, he’s the one pushing the new book.

At the core of Carr’s alarmism is that the Web is simply at odds with deep, contemplative thought and reflection. It’s really a defense of book learning in its most basic form—again, not surprising coming from an author of books who values above all else the printed word. In an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal last week, Carr summed up his position:

When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.

. . . What we seem to be sacrificing in all our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection. The Web never encourages us to slow down. It keeps us in a state of perpetual mental locomotion.

It is revealing, and distressing, to compare the cognitive effects of the Internet with those of an earlier information technology, the printed book. Whereas the Internet scatters our attention, the book focuses it. Unlike the screen, the page promotes contemplativeness.

Is the Internet really rewiring our brains? Sure, everything we do rewires our brains. That’s how our brains work (On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins is a good primer). That’s how we learn, through experience and repetition, which gets carved into new neuropathways over time. The Internet is no different.

Is this rewiring somehow detrimental? If it is, then all the bookworms like Carr will end up being smarter than the rest of us and evolution will reward them. But something tells me that is not going to happen. The fact of the matter is that the Internet spreads information more broadly than the printed word ever did. It makes it easier to get up to speed on topics that you otherwise would know nothing about, such as the effects of the Internet on the brain. The reason reading online makes me feel smarter than reading a book is the exact same one Carr says makes us dumber: the pesky link. He writes:

Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.

Reading on the Internet is not the same experience as reading a book, no doubt about that. And I do agree with Carr that it is easier to lose yourself in a book than when reading on a screen. But to suggest that reading a book is a richer experience, or that we can’t handle the cognitive load of reading words with links is hogwash.

Personally, I find it difficult now to read texts without links. When guest authors send me draft opinion pieces without any links, for example, they feel barren to me. Links are more than just footnotes that show an author has done the research to back up his arguments. They are what make the written words on the Web alive. An article with links is a living text, which exists in relation to other texts and thoughts on the Web. They let you go as deep down the rabbit hole as you care to go. There is no reason why books shouldn’t be the same, filled with links to be read in a browser on your iPad.

Maybe Carr’s neural pathways are set already and this kind of experience is too jarring for him. But I kind of doubt that—he is quite adept at the ways of the Web. I have another theory. Maybe what he really finds objectionable is a world where readers are no longer content to let the full waterfall of an author’s words wash over them, and then sit and contemplate the genius of those words in isolation from any other words, and how fortunate they are to have gotten a glimpse into the author’s mind for only the $18 price of a hardcover from Amazon.