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Innovation

Is the Internet making us stupid?

Carr writes that, like his friends in literary America, he's finding it increasingly hard to concentrate on long form anything.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

No. But it is changing us. In ways we still haven't figured out yet.

The Shallows, a new book by Nicholas Carr, starts with the proposition that it is, indeed, making us stupid. It's a follow-on to a very popular article in The Atlantic along the same lines, called Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Carr writes that, like his friends in literary America, he's finding it increasingly hard to concentrate on long form anything. "The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

There is some science to back up the idea that the interrupt-driven Internet is changing how our brains work, writes Laura Miller in Salon. Recent research shows the brain is incredibly plastic, that whole regions are transformed depending on what we do with it.

The medium isn't just the message, but as Marshall McLuhan wrote years ago, it's the massage. It's more like a muscle than a computer. What you do a lot becomes what you do best. That's why my son can play the piano, why my wife actually does a lot of deep reading (she hates TV). It's why I can support four blogs, plus my personal Web site, and still get dinner on the table.

The thesis of Carr's article, and his book, is that the hard work of deep reading, and deep thinking, are of pretty recent vintage. The Internet - with its hyperlinks, blinking lights, and instant gratification of whims -- is leading us away from what is best about us. It's giving all of society ADHD.

Speaking as someone who has ADHD, and who has worked online for 25 years now, I must say Carr's conceit is popular. You don't see many bloggers on The Daily Show. They've all got books to flog. It's as though people think if you're not writing long-form something you're not serious.

I reject that, absolutely. (So does Clay Shirky.) Every medium brings new skills to the fore, and new possibilities to the mind. It just takes time to figure out what they are. The old media don't disappear. We still have books, newspapers, magazines, movies, radio and TV, even though my kids don't watch much TV.

Which is really the point. Any new media takes time, attention, and mental growth away from those that went before. It changes the nature of the old media. Movies transformed storytelling and made actors into celebrities. Radio and TV made them into stock characters (which is why Jack Benny never got close to an Oscar). Maybe the Internet is doing the same to writers.

The Internet is changing us all. But to go into that future in fear is counter-productive. We can still concentrate when we want to. You got all the way to the bottom of this post, didn't you?

(Hello? Are you still there?)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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