What IS the internet doing to our brains?

images-1In The Information: A History, A Theory, A imagesFlood, James Gleick explores how recording and transferring information has evolved through intellectual technologies (first writing, then the book, then the library, and on and on, until we reached the Internet). In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr grounds his work in cognitive science to explore the implications of the ever-present internet on our ever-evolving minds. These two books raised more questions than answers, three of which I will attempt to unpack below (with even more questions).

1- Does abstraction lead to less meaning, or more?

There is an interesting passage in Carr’s work that explores the relationship of a reader to a book, which can be summed up in the quote: “The reader becomes the book.”1 He is referencing the poem “The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm” by Wallace Stevens, but gets to the root of a larger question, namely, how we are able to abstract ourselves from our lived experience? Gleick also speaks to the implications of abstraction through the use of a humorous anecdote about a pre-literate peasant who, when asked to explain what a tree is, responds: “Why should I? Everyone knows what a tree is, they don’t need me telling them.” 2

Developments in print culture, and now internet culture, have extended and intensified the level of abstraction, or alienation, we feel from our world. Add to this Gleick’s argument that there is (theoretically) more meaning embedded in the information we receive when there is less pattern and redundancy. For instance, a tree condenses information into a pattern of concentric circles that are each unique and can be “read” (or heard!). If each tree ring was identical to the one before, a redundant pattern, they would contain much less information. To apply this logic to the internet, the more abstracted we become from our lived experience, the more diverse information we collect, and the more meaning we actually draw from it. Although I don’t believe we “become the internet” as Carr suggests readers do of their books, perhaps we are becoming more connected to a highly abstracted world, which can lead to a better understanding of our place in it. Perhaps it would help to try and view this theory through the eyes of a child, because when kids are asked what a tree is they seem to embrace their ability to abstract:

What is the essence of a tree?

2– What is the power of metaphor between nature, machines, and our SELVES?

Both authors point out the use of metaphor as both extending from the natural world onto computers, and from computers back onto us (the internet is described as a “web” but our brains are “hardwired”). Carr suggests that mirror neurons might explain this proclivity, and notes: “Our brains can imagine the mechanics and the benefits of using a new device before that device even exists” (211). When followed up with Marshall McLuhan’s idea that tools numb the parts of the body they amplify, this reflexive relationship has potentially dire implications (Carr 210). This is how Carr is able to say that our minds are being numbed, not just rewired, through our use of the internet. It seems important to note, however, that this close connection between nature and machine was recognized long before mirror neurons were discovered. E.E. Cummings (or e.e. cummings, you decide) shared this anxiety when he said: “Some son-of-a-bitch will invent a machine to measure Spring with” (Gleick 266). Spring doesn’t need machines, but neither does it need poets–or does it? To adapt again from the tree (an increasingly useful metaphor in itself): if Spring has sprung, but no poet is around to put it in verse, is it really Springtime? I digress—but it does seem that the relationship between nature (ourselves) and the tools we create is more mutually reinforcing than Carr would like to give it credit for, much like the relationship between poets and Spring. Vannevar Bush, when conceiving of the Memex, did not believe that his creation would numb the mind but rather enhance the processes of the mind that books and libraries were incapable of supporting. In the world of information theory and computing technology, the rhetoric of poets and philosophers join with the binary codes of scientists and mathematicians. And the fact that new media scholars look to the poet Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” as much as Bush’s Memex for inspiration suggests that the search field is meant to enhance, not replace, our relationship to the grassy field (but more on that in a moment).

3—What happens when we continue to blur the lines between our analog and virtual worlds?

Perhaps partly dealt with in the previous section, I think this is a slightly different question, or at least an extension of it. The internet continues to intertwine itself into our world, and looks very different than the “machine” that E.E. Cummings was suspicious of. From bit coins, to live-tweeting conferences, to playing Pokémon Go, lived experiences are not only being reflected on the internet, but are given meaning by it in real time. And, especially when considering international banking or surveillance or drones, this intrusion can seem insidious. This line of reasoning is where Carr’s anxieties seem to have legs. But, returning to Gleick, this intrusion also seems natural, or at least not so jarring. People’s minds have created and been shaped by intellectual technologies for centuries, so perhaps this is simply the next stage of our mind’s evolution. I can’t help but think of Michael Pollan’s discussion of co-evolution in The Botany of Desire, and how this might apply to our growth as an internet culture. Therefore, it seems that we should approach the internet not as defensively as Carr, but rather curiously and critically. As Plato wrote that Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Reaching the end of the post, there is a final (bonus!) question that I keep returning to. That question is: has abstraction come full circle? If, by “becoming” a book, you are fully abstracted from your life into another world, and by “surfing” the internet you are taken into fragmented pieces of many worlds, then what we have now seems different. When the internet is ubiquitous economically, socially, and politically, has our abstract experience fused with our lived one? If I can sit in a field in Springtime while tweeting about how connected I feel to nature “IRL” and catching an Eevee in the distance before pulling out my tablet to read a user-annotated version of E.E. Cumming’s poem beginning with “who knows if the moon’s a balloon…,” (oh, let me Google that…okay, I know, definitely not a balloon), where’s the line between the analog and virtual? After abstracting ourselves so far from our lived experiences through intellectual technologies over the last several centuries, have these technologies actually brought us back to reality? (I warned you at the beginning that there were more questions than answers.)

An E.E. and an Eevee.

  1. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton Press, 2010), 74.
  2. Carr, The Shallows, 39.
Jessica Does History