Plugged in

A concept I’ve been thinking more about is the way we’re “plugged in” to the Net and media as human beings. We’ve developed a mentality that’s dependent on being fed information every hour through a variety of devices. We feel the need to stay current, in the know, refreshing our feeds and timelines to find something new to stimulate and distract ourselves. Not only is this a mental tick and habit, but we learn through Carr that this media usage may be physically and chemically altering our brains and the way we develop thoughts as well.

“Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and the director of its Memory and Aging Center, has been studying the physiological and neurological effects of the use of digital media, and what he’s discovered backs up Merzenich’s belief that the Net causes extensive brain changes. The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains. The daily usage of computers, smartphones, search engines, and other such tools stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening old ones.” (120)

If what Carr is suggesting is true, it’s a true reflection of the way the Net has taken over our brains. But how can we make a direct correlation between the usage of screens and the effect on neural pathways in our brain? I’m unsure of the research which has been done, and although it sounds convincing, it’s also good to raise questions. I think Carr extends his theory at this particular part of the book through providing the physical effects and aspects the media has on us. He illustrates the cycle the Net has on our brains; the more we feed it, the more we need it.

brain
A free photo I found through Google images encompasses many of Carr’s points in the book, but especially depicts the way we are plugged in at all times.

I found the image above and immediately resonated again with the idea of being “plugged in”. This image illustrates a literal depiction of the way we’re mentally connected to the Net and technology at all times, and even goes a step further to suggest the technology is even powering the brain – is that an indication of what’s to come? We become so adapted to the internet, our abilities deteriorate to the point that they are useless? Or will technology become so advanced, we won’t need any literary abilities?

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Our Mind Is Going

The subtitle of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows is a statement that has many varying angles to it. The subtitle reads, “What the Internet is doing to our brains”. In short, it is doing quite a bit, some good, some bad. But, the greater question that can be broken off from Carr’s writings is, what is the Internet allowing our brains to become? Carr begins the first chapter of the book with a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 1967 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. When writing about the film Carr specifically quoted a line uttered by HAL, the computer that controlled the ship our protagonist Dave was traveling in. Dave was unplugging and destroying HAL late in the movie, to which the computer responded, “Dave, my mind is going.” Carr would go on to utilize the quote through his first chapter in reference to the lack of focus the typical American mind has when in use of the Internet. However, I read this classic quote and felt that it could be interpreted in another way, an angle that Carr would address later on in his book. For me, the collective ‘mind’ of the average American citizen has been ‘going’ for quite some time in regards to inability to function on its own merit without the internet. Time and time again in conversation, debate, or any sort of interaction I have with friends, family, or classmates questions or facts are presented, and yet almost every time the people in the conversation are not the ones to answer or respond. The unique thoughts or beliefs of these people are not presented in response. These individuals always go right to their phones and the Internet. They can never think for themselves, the Internet must do the thinking for them. In the seventh chapter of The Shallows Carr states, “When we’re online, we’re often oblivious to everything else going on around us”; we shut off everything real and physical in our world and are reduced to merely interpreters of results of our Google search. The world created by the Internet in 2017 is one in which answers must be 100 percent accurate and rapid, so people are never left to think for themselves now or even trust their own intellect; we are consumed with the instant gratification our computers provide us with. In an article written by Daniel Wegner on Scientific American, located at http://bit.ly/2lIFtmS, Wegner states that he feels the ease of access to the internet at its resources, “… may not only eliminate the need for a partner with whom to share information—it may also undermine the impulse to ensure that some important, just learned facts get inscribed into our biological memory banks.” The Internet being at each and every person’s fingertips is, in a sense, taking our humanity from us. One could say, our mind is going. So in response to my originally posed question, the Internet is allowing our brains to become a screen; not capable of producing results or interaction, just capable of mirroring the search engine results found on the Internet. This is a reality Nicholas Carr understood and conveyed in The Shallows all too well.

The Internet Changes You

I was moving furniture with my older brother a few days before the start of the spring semester and while we were waiting at a traffic light he punched me on the shoulder from the driver’s seat and said, “There’s this picture of this little dog with its hands raised up in the air like it’s celebrating and it says: ‘When your bank account is more than zero!’ Haha! It’s the funniest little thing.”

I didn’t laugh and he got upset to a degree that I thought was unwarranted. After a minute he got serious and said, “Someone showed me that picture while we were chopping wood and me and the guys cracked up and kept talking about it for the rest of the day. That got us through the day. You people (by which he meant, ‘people who don’t cut themselves off from the internet because they fear the government is trying to control them’) are so inundated with jokes and funny pictures that nothing makes you laugh anymore.”

The question of whether the internet had changed my sense of humor was on my mind before I picked up Carr’s book. My initial reaction to my brother was “No, that’s just a bad joke,” but after reading Carr’s explanations of neuroplasticity, particularly, his quote about the internet taking away his ability to concentrate on longer works, I realized that I might have been affected more by my internet usage than I once thought. “And what the net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration” (pg. 6). Yeah, that’s me. Being connected to the internet means news can break instantaneously, and any time I open Twitter I could be greeted with a world changing update. How can I pay attention to a long boring article when the world is literally at my fingertips?

Access to so much information and so many connections has impacted the way I see and interact with the real world. The most interesting thing I’ll ever read, the funniest joke I’ll ever be told, and the coolest people I’ll ever interact with will almost certainly be done online. The world becomes boring when you realize that you’ll never meet your favorite celebrity, but you can have a back and forth conversation on twitter. What Carr meant when he wrote about his concentration being chipped away was that he was used to getting news in bite (or byte) sized chunks and thus long form articles were unengaging. But I think it goes further. Social media stimulates our brain because every moment we’re being engaged. When you’re away from that you’ll find that you’ve become addicted, and it’s that addiction that makes it hard to do anything else. When my brother and the 40 year old lumberjacks he work with see a picture of a cute animal or read a funny caption, for them it’s the funniest thing they’ve seen in awhile. For me it’s not even in the top ten things I’ve seen that morning. This has to be affecting who I am as a person in ways that are potentially frightening.