I came across an interesting blog this morning which raises the question of whether western culture is leading the way into a Huxlian Brave New World via Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” In it Michael Sacasas proposes that we are embracing our own intellectual debilitation through our addiction to connectivity.
It’s been pretty well documented that productivity declines during multi-tasking. There’s some indication that the decline of sustained reading in favor of taking in short bits on the internet is an indication that we will soon lose the ability to follow complex, reasoned arguments. (Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows, writes: Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just like it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.) Neurological research is showing that the brain is far more plastic than we previously thought, and that a sustained change in habits can result in a change in brain structure.
On the other hand, there is scientific evidence that suggests that using the internet may engage more of the brain than mere reading. I’ve also read an article recently that argued that sustained, focused reading is an unnatural act, an anomaly in the history of our species. (Sorry, I haven’t been able to locate it again to provide the reference. :-P) We evolved taking in and evaluating a constant flood of information about food sources and dangers in our environment. Our ancestors who did it most successfully were the ones who survived. Our affinity for the internet’s multiple inputs is, by this argument, just a return to a natural environment for our brain.
That may be overstating it a bit, in my opinion, but it’s interesting food for thought. Assuming we can still think after cruising the internet. 😉