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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Movement From Paper To Screen

Through reading the first six chapters of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, I have gained a new perspective on what the media is doing to society now, and even what it did when technology was first evolving. I feel that what is being discussed in the first chapter is extremely relevant to my life, and the life that most students live today. Carr acknowledges the opinion of Karp, a well-educated man who has a passion for writing, regarding technology and how it is impacting our minds. Carr tells us that “Karp has come to believe that reading lots of short, linked snippets online is a more efficient way to expand his mind than reading ‘250-page books’, though, he says, ‘we can’t yet recognize the superiority of this networked thinking process because we’re measuring it against our old linear thought process’” (Car 8). Reading text online of all different sorts has become a part of our daily lives. Using the internet teaches us new ways of thinking and learning each time we explore something new online.

Everything we do has transformed into a shortened version and our minds have been forced to adapt to this. For example, any post on Twitter can be no more than forty words, meaning posts for this class have to be abbreviated or made into a significantly shorter phrase than an idea may have started out as. For people who have grown up using these methods of technology and have not had to watch society change completely with the growth of technology, there is not as much to get used to because we don’t have an old thought process to measure against, like Karp described in the text.

There are now so many benefits of reading entire books online or through an electronic tool. I read an article online about the benefits of eBooks, which also instantly directed me to further articles just like what was mentioned in The Shallows. For those who are trying to help the environment, that is a huge way to make an impact by putting a stop to purchasing printed books. But from the standpoint of someone who genuinely just wants to grow as a reader, an eBook allows you to look more in depth at certain aspects of the text and often times you can look up a particular word that you are unsure about. Since an eBook has a direct correspondence to the internet, there are always ways to gain more information on a topic or sentence you are reading about.

An Extension of Ourselves

Throughout my life, people have always pondered the question of whether iPhones and the internet bring more benefits or losses to our society as a whole. I remember when I was 14 years old, I was standing on the stage at the Miss Hockessin pageant, and I was asked this exact question. It has always been difficult for me to distinguish whether iPhones and social media truly help us grow or hinder our abilities. And to this day, I still have trouble coming up with an answer.

On one hand, these new technologies have given us the opportunity to communicate much more easily. We can send a quick text or tweet to anyone around the world within only a few seconds. We can share our lives and accomplishments with family and friends we no longer get to see. We can find answers to any questions we may have, right in the palm of our hands. So many benefits. But, what are the losses? As Carr points out, we have lost our sense of concentration. Whereas before, we could sit down and immerse ourself in a book for hours, now we can barely sit through a lecture without looking for the next best thing to grab our attention. Although our personal connection has expanded digitally, we no longer can connect with people face-to-face. When I walk into my classes, no one is talking to each other. They all have their faces shielded down from the real world, as they live through their virtual reality. Some people even use these technologies as a weapon. Behind a screen, individuals are able to anonymously insult and hurt others through multiple social networking sites. Lastly, there have been negative effects on our physical health. In an article from The New York Times, it was said that the constant slouching from our iPhone use can actually be correlated to our loss of memory and a decline in our moods.

So whose to blame? Certainly, Steve Jobs and the other creators of the World Wide Web never intended for their creations to bring about such impacts. I think the best answer to this question comes from Carr. “The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value” (3). The iPhone and internet were never meant to be bad or result in a negative impact on people. It’s because of how we use them that makes them bad. We could use our phones and still be able to communicate with people in person, but we choose not too. We have changed what was once just a useful tool, to an actual extension of our body and mind.  We no longer separate ourselves from the technology. We can try to change these negative impacts though. Slowly, but surely, we are trying to understand the happy medium between technology use and personal interaction. I’m curious to read more from Carr and see if he has his own theories on how to stop digital technologies from completely taking over our lives.

How Our Brains Have Come Full Circle (In a Sense)

One quote I liked in particular from The Shallows was from page 63: “The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness.” A few sentences before this quote Carr wrote about how “readers didn’t just become more efficient [over time]. They also became more attentive.” The second quote acknowledges how the human brain is evolving overtime to accommodate the complex activity of reading. The first six chapters of The Shallows roughly outline a brief timeline of the human brain: distracted and scattered in the time of ancient civilizations and cavemen, more developed and focused at the dawn of the invention of writing, and then rapidly becoming more sophisticated and complex as reading and writing became a necessary element to everyday human life. This has been proven true on many accounts, looking back on how the works produced by humans over the years and how they have been getting more complex and sophisticated. With the emergence of modern day technology, humans have evolved more than ever. Our brains have rewired over the decades to adapt to constantly reading in small snippets, very quickly. Our intake of information has dramatically increased due to the greater ease of access to information on countless different topics, aiding to monumental research and general public knowledge. Almost 24/7 we are gathering and processing new information in our brains from all the screens and various signs we read, so of course our brains had to adapt to this new lifestyle that technology has led us to.

This constant intake of information in small bursts has, in a way, brought our brains back to the very distractedness that is mentioned in the quotes. Before the Internet gave us the ability to find new material to read and things to learn, humans had to go to libraries and to research in physical books, sitting in front of books for hours at a time. In order to extract information and learn things from text, readers had to immerse themselves in what they were reading. Today, the opposite is true. If we see an article online of more than a few paragraphs in length, we generally tend to try and find a shorter article on the same topic. Since the emergence of the Internet, we have become accustomed to finding what we need in a few paragraphs or less. This has lead us to become more distracted when presented with a “lengthy” piece of text. Even modern day research suggests ways to cope with the distractedness of our brains while studying (bullet 2, 4, and 7).

While modern technology and the Internet did bring positive monumental change to the world, and our way of living, it has taken a toll on our brains in the form of distractedness and the high demand for quick intake of information. The benefits of this technology does far outweigh the costs, but this proves to show that nothing comes without consequence.

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.

The Internet Impacting Our Concentration: Fact or Fiction?

After reading up to chapter seven in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”, I am intrigued by and have begun to ponder several of his arguments regarding how the internet is changing the way that we think. In general, Carr claims that throughout oral and written history, the human brain has changed in accordance with the dominant means of communication in a given time period. Most importantly, our brains are doing the same thing now as we begin to make the internet our primary medium for reading and communicating. However, when it comes to the internet, Carr doesn’t think that the brain’s inclination towards plasticity has had a positive impact on us. Instead, he feels that the brain’s acclimation to the digital age has had a detrimental effect on our attention spans. From the outset of the book, he makes this point clear, stating “And what the net is doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation” (Carr 6). Moreover, Carr feels that this same phenomenon has affected others in his generation as well as those who have grown up with the internet. Referring to the latter age cohort, Joe O’Shea, cited in the book, states “They don’t necessarily read a page from left to right and top to bottom. They might instead skip around, scanning for pertinent information of interest” (Carr 9).

I was specifically struck by the claim that many people my age read differently, and in a sense, incompletely. This is not something I had ever thought about or dwelled on until reading “The Shallows”. As someone who is forced to utilize both printed and online resources for school, it is important that I am able to absorb and retain information regardless of where it’s located. On the one hand, I understand where Carr is coming from because when I am reading news articles online, I occasionally tend to skip around the article to get to the main point that the headline was referring to. However, I usually do this skimming or skipping intentionally. Furthermore, when it comes to articles or important reading material for school, whether it is printed on paper or online, I take great care to read closely and make sure I am receptive to the information presented to me. I will say, though, there are times where I have trouble concentrating on what I read in a textbook for class, regardless of attempting to do a close read. I usually attribute this lack of concentration to the material, however, and not to any cognitive inability.

This topic has sparked much debate in the psychology and education fields. In this article from The Guardian, author Duncan Jeffries also uses Carr’s argument to investigate how others feel regarding the web and its impacts on concentration. I was surprised to read that a Pew Research survey found that while 77% of teachers feel that the internet has positive effects on students’ overall research, 87% of those same teachers feel that the internet is leading to shortened attention spans. In this sense, there is mixed opinion as to whether the internet has a positive or negative influence on our brains.