In 2008, the brilliant write Nicholas Carr declared in an article in The Atlantic,that the internet was making us stoopider. Or stupid. The premise being that the way we engage and read online is re-wiring our neural circuitry. Back then, we were only just starting to carry the vastness of the internet around in our pockets. People falling off cliffs backwards and dying while trying to catch a perfect selfie was not yet a thing. Nor was walking off wharfs into harbours chasing cartoon characters on our smartphones.
What Carr was getting at, rightfully so, was our attention span. At the time, I called this the attention economy, or the 90 second economy, in which we consumed and engaged with any piece of content for around 90 seconds. TikTok has made billions of dollars taking advantage of our short attention spans. Most Medium articles do best under a 4 minute read. Ever been on wikipedia searching on one topic and an hour later ending up on some obscure topic that is totally unrelated? Exactly. There’s anough research that shows our brains are getting rewired somewhat due to the nature of the internet. Is that making us stupider? I think that’s the wrong question.
Perhaps we might better ask “how is the internet changing how we think?” In part, our brains are getting re-wired, it is part of how we are adapting in the digital age, where we are enhancing our cognition rather than just the physical world. Our minds are having to learn to live in two worlds; the physical and the digital.
While Carr was right, in some ways, at the time, the internet has been with us too short a time to make sweeping statements that it is making us stupid. Or anything else. Yet. We certainly can spend too many hours a day staring into our screens. During the pandemic, we’ve often spoken of zoom exhaustion at the end of the day from so many video meetings. This is cognitive overload from trying to process too much information in a way our brains aren’t wired to cope with. When we come together for social activities such as meetings or a meal, our brains are wired to look for non-verbal, physical gestures that tell us a full story. We don’t get those cues on video calls.
In 2008, we mostly accessed our digital world through just one screen at a time. Many of us will have two, if not three monitors that we use for our work. Plus smartphones, tablets and all the other screens we interact with. We are processing information in ways we’ve never done before. Including using our voices to ask speakers in our homes about things.
The internet, originally, in the 70’s and early 80’s, was a place for long-form content and discussion. But rather than read on the monitor, one would download and print out the content. Then write and upload a response. There was also no World Wide Web, no videos and images, flaming logos and streaming music. Nor had the cats started taking over social media, which may well have been their idea.
Yes, there’s a lot of banal and silly content on the internet. Such content also existed in the real-world too, before the internet and even today. Sadly, we live with far more disinformation today as well.
What we are doing is accelerating things we did in the physical world, from forming groups to organising and creating knowledge. Humans are, at scale, learning faster than ever before as well. This is happening for good and bad. Just as internet sleuths come together to help solve crimes, so do others create propaganda and conspiracy theories. The internet isn’t bad, no technology is. It’s how we use the internet. Or any technology.
We are in a time of great change. We are re-wiring our brains and our bodies. We are debating our global society and local societies and cultures. Cyrptocurrency is a human invention, like money, and now we are arguing about a new form of money. Humanity is expressing and creating at an unpredented scale. The internet is not making us stoopider, we are adapting and evolving in the Cognitive Age.
The internet is not going away. Coming at us is ever more immersion into digital worlds through Augmented and Virtual Reality. The Invisible Hand is at work. To get to a better place, we must push through. Together. It’s just going to be a bit messy for a while. Sometimes, humans take a while to smarten up.
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