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The Internet is rewiring our brains

(This article was originally published in the Belfast Telegraph on 3 June 2010. It’s been modified slightly for this blog.)

In his forthcoming book The Shallows author Nicholas Carr argues that surfing the web has a negative impact on how we think. He quotes research stating that exposure to bite-sized chunks of information, from short videos and blog posts to tweets and Facebook updates, trains our brain to prefer this type of information. As a result we are losing the ability to focus on a single thing for longer periods of time.

This is not a new argument – in an article for The Atlantic magazine in 2008 titled “Is Google making us stupid?” Carr laid out the groundwork for his upcoming book. In a recent blog post Carr outlines a specific aspect of how the nature of the internet affects how we consume information: Links embedded in a text distract us from fully reading and comprehending the text. Instead of linking to other web pages from within the text, Carr wants us to start putting links at the bottom of a piece of online content.

As with his original article for the Atlantic, this latest blog post has not gone unnoticed by his critics. Clay Shirky, another notable author and web guru, stands firmly on the opposite side of the debate, claiming that the internet is a force for good. The web, he argues, allows for a wider spread of information than ever before, and has enabled an entirely new means of engaging with politics and society.

As a web professional spending close to 10 hours a day online, saying bad things about the internet runs counter to my livelihood. Yet I too cannot deny the fact that my mind works differently now than it did 15 years ago when I discovered the internet. Many of the symptoms outlined by Carr are eerily familiar to me, such as the big gaps between short- and long-term memories and an increasing inability to concentrate on a single thing for a long stretch of time.

I’m not sure if this is an entirely bad thing, though. The internet works in a certain way, and perhaps our brains are adapting to this online landscape to allow us to perform better in it. We’re developing new skills and new ways of thinking so we can deal more effectively with a globally connected world. Perhaps this type of hypercharged multitasking mindset is exactly what we need to succeed in modern times.

But at the same time I share some of Carr’s concerns that maybe we are losing something in the process. The question, then, is whether what we stand to gain measures up to what we might lose.

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