By Darin L. Hammond
Although the question of whether the internet affects our brains did not originate with Nicholas Carr, his July 2008 article in The Atlantic Monthly titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" certainly brought the issue into the mainstream media. He contends that Internet use in general, not just Google, changes the brain. The statement is obvious, as all things we experience, especially those over an extended period of time, change or brains, neural pathways, and cognition. However, what agitated people was his assertion that extensive use of the web makes us think in a less complex, in-depth manner.
Carr succinctly states that internet media "supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation." I would argue with him vehemently if needed, but many more important than I already have, most notably The Pew Research Center. With its empirical skills in researching, surveying, interviewing, etc. the Center soundly proves Carr wrong in a 2010 study which is revealing and insightful. The issue, however, is not dead. In July 2011 the reputable magazine Science revealed their new research findings on what they term "The Google Effect," obviously alluding to Carr's work. They found, not surprisingly that "sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger." The writers phrase this with a negative conotation, even though The Pew Research center pointed out prior to their study that this can have intensely beneficial effects. It frees our minds to work on more complex matters. However, Science chooses to see this as pejorative, stating that "The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves." So, our brains do not store as much basic data in memory because the information is freely available elsewhere.
Social media makes the issue both more complex and important because more people than ever are spending increasing amounts of their time on websites, socializing. Drawing from Pew's research and my own knowledge, there are five broad ways the internet and social media enable increased human intelligence:
1. Social media are a global extension of brain resources. With near infinite ability and a finite capacity, the brain is our most precious resource for doing the labor of thought--the best parts of which cannot be done by computers. Social media, and the internet in general, free our minds from an information universe. Now, we can still access infinite amounts of information without consuming the brain's precious resources. The internet becomes an external hard drive for our brain to access whatever it needs, whenever needed. Net short and long term memory expenditure for this infinite information=0. Net gain of information access=infinite.
2. Social media facilitate the most effecient meaning construction environment. Contrary to the pre-Galileo view of the universe, the earth is not the center of all, nor is the individual the center of all meaning creation. The earth is only a small part of a complex, infinite system, and the individual human being is a tiny player in the cultural meaning construction system. The truth is that humans make meaning and pass it along in and through culture. Social media exponentially increase one's ability to collaborate with others in the social network. Net meaning loss = 0. Net meaning construction potential = infinite.
3. Social media reflect and facilitate the best functioning networks in the existence. Consider, for example, air traffic control across the world, one of the most complex yet orderly systems humans have created. Via air transportation, the entire world becomes accessible to the individual. Likewise, via the network of social media and the internet, the universe of information becomes accessible and navigable for the individual. Air transportation, despite its flaws, is one of the safest forms of moving about on this planet. The internet, regardless of small drawbacks, makes a highly efficient, safe network for sharing and creating information across vast amounts of space.
4. Social media are both functional and aesthetic. The internet serves its purpose (if it has one) in an effective, utilitarian manner. Social media function well overall. In addition, they are aesthetic in the sense that beauty and knowledge are more widely available through the internet than previously. The internet is a beauty to behold, and to see it as anything less is to look at the Golden Gate bridge and only see a mess of wires, cables, and concrete.
5. Social media level the economic playing field. This is perhaps most important, though it comes last on my list. Education and knowledge are available to the masses rather than just the elite and wealthy. This becomes increasingly so as philanthropic organizations, such as the laptop initiative out of MIT, make cheap, powerful computers available to the empoverished of the world. Education is becoming truly an equal opportunity. One could set out today to know all there is about quantum physics, acquire knowledge equivilent to that of a PhD, and through social media, enter and add to the world-wide conversation. All this free to all. Power to the people!
Yes, the internet and social media change our brains, but the overall trajectory of human knowledge is exponentially rising with their use. We will think differently, but we will think better.