The Internet Has Dumbed Us Down

Has the internet made us stupid, a recent article in the Atlantic asks. The author, blogger Nicolas Carr, frets about the effect the internet has had on his thinking processes, on the way it has rewired his brains’ very circuitry.

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going–so far as I can tell–but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets–reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances–literary types, most of them–many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon.

I have the same problem and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I haven’t read a book in its entirety in ages, even though I keep buying them. I have piles of books at my bedside table which, when I got them, I knew I would devour in one reading. Months, even years after, I haven’t gone beyond a few chapters, at best. I stop and start and finally give up at some point, distracted by the flickering text and images on my monitor.

No doubt, the internet has turbo-charged the information revolution. We are all grateful for the way it has made masses of material available on every conceivable subject. It has democratized access to data and empowered millions, as a medium for reaching the world at large and self-expression. But being plugged-in has a price. The Law of Unintended Consequences at work.

The internet has altered our cognitive processes. For one thing our attention span has shortened dramatically. According to a BBC item, the addictive nature of web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds – the same as a goldfish. This isn’t much of an exaggeration.

“Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things,” says Ted Selker, an expert in the online equivalent of body language at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

“If we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating,” he told the BBC programme Go Digital.

The sheer volume of available info has also forced us to skim over all the material coming our way, and trained us to go for efficiency and wider coverage, at the expense of depth of understanding. We bounce from one site to another, never fully comprehending what we are reading before we move on to next hyperlinked article or video clip.

I miss the times when I could lose myself in a book. What to do ?

Jessica Zafra has a simple solution. She takes time off from the digital age – one whole day without cellphone, email, internet, text, nothing — to read an old-fashioned printed book.

I think this is an excellent idea. I have to relearn how to read deeply and with a meaningful grasp of what it is I’m staring at. To read with knowing.

Now, if I can only summon the will to shut down my P.C.

7 thoughts on “The Internet Has Dumbed Us Down”

  1. I agree. The internet has dumbed people down. But on the brighter side, the internet has also helped us in a way we barely could imagine in the past. Which is that we discover more things in a pace one could hardly catch-up given the lack of know-how in manipulating the vastness of the cyberspace to one’s advantage 🙂

  2. I disagree. The internet does not dumb people down; it’s when people stopped themselves from doing cognitive work. This is why they say the pursuit of knowledge is a lifetime task. You don’t stop when you’ve finally gotten your diploma. You continue to feed your brain, synthesize the information, and put it in application. But if people decide to leisurely browse instead of taking time to integrate each information they come across, then it’s their fault that their internal wiring is starting to get a little rusty.

    I cannot count the ways by which the Internet has enriched my knowledge and helped me in the practice of medicine. But to cite some: the Internet has helped in making researches in medicine be easily available to physicians globally. Imagine the power of your research magnified by a review of literature from studies that have been done across the globe, which could not have been normally made easily available, considering time and the space. But through the Internet, it has been made possible. Imagine the power of different patients suffering from diseases being enabled to connect with other patients who’re also suffering from the same diseases. They help each other by sharing knowledge and giving moral support, made easier because of the Internet.

    It’s what people decide to do with the Internet that makes the difference between empowerment and getting “dumbed down”.

  3. @ Splice, very true, the internet has been a boon to us, in terms of access to information and data as well as a platform for free expression. Facts which used to take hours or even days to ferret out now takes only a few mouse clicks.

    @ Prudence, valid point. There is always the element of discernment and choice. The internet, like most things people obsess about (money, for instance) is neither good nor bad. It’s how we use them, or how attached we become to them, which defines whether or not we benefit positively from what we have.

    And as a tool for info gathering and interacting with your peers at the least cost in time, effort and resources, I agree that nothing beats the internet. A world without it is almost unimaginable.

    Thanks for dropping by.

  4. i think it’s a matter of how someone takes the convenience the internet provides. prudence made a valid point and to add, being dumbed down by the internet is basically a matter of choice. many people get lost in the overwhelming volume of information but to a rational user the endgame is how to whittle down the information you get to the most practicable and useful.

  5. I think internet does not necessarily dumb us. Because it definitely made us smarter. It’s more of being directed to not being able to concentrate. I can totally relate to your experience of having so many books that are unread. I’m reading Einstein’s Dreams for almost a month now, I’ve done 3/4 of this the first week but because of some ‘virtual interruptions’, it seems forgotten. I would have to refresh on some chapters before I continue reading it. And of course, because of the lag it seems that I’m buying a number of books more than I can actually read. Wherein the past I can finish one quickly.

    The other way to look at this net disconcentration is keeping our priorities as we face the net each day. A call for self-discipline.

  6. The internet dumbed Filipinos down? If it were not for internet and rely news based on the gossips and intrigue reportings by pekeng-periodistas I would be TOTALLY dumbed!!!

    Thanks to internet!!! Now I can read NYTimes, Chicago Tribune, WSJ, LATimes … etc … These newspapers taught me how events should be reported, how rookie policemen know more about not releasing crime scene factoids so as not to compromise invistigation, whereas, our foreign-educated Ivy league school graduate of a senators are just so dumb and the pekeng-periodistas dumbest still for releasing compromising facts to the public.

    Now I know FILIPINOS ARE JUST DUMB. I’d rather be called dumb, idiot but please DO NOT CALL ME FILIPINO. FILIPINOS IS THE DUMBEST NAME OF ALL!!!

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