I see that while I was away the Internet has been getting a certain amount of stick over the way it allegedly alters our mental processes for the worse. Some of this dialogue apparently stems from a two-year-old piece by Nicholas Carr, now developed into a book. Most of the criticisms seem to be from people who have experienced two main problems: they’re finding that they have a reduced attention span, and they’re also suffering from a failing memory. They attribute these problems to Internet use – but I wonder whether they have made sufficient allowance for the fact that both can also be the result of simple ageing.
I think it’s true that if you don’t use your memory, it gets worse, so it’s superficially plausible that relying on the Internet could have a bad effect: but I don’t think I find myself using the Internet for things I would otherwise have learnt by heart, while I certainly have begun forgetting things I knew quite well before the Internet was invented. So far as my attention span is concerned, it has certainly waned steadily over the whole course of my life: when I was four or five I could spend a long time just examining the patterns made by the grain in a piece of wood (mind you, in those days, we had interesting wood, not like the bland stuff they produce these days…). I regret this to some extent, but in another way I don’t regret it at all, because I think it is partly a result of mental improvement, the result of accumulated experience. I can tell more quickly now when something is not going to be worth pursuing, and I am less bothered about dropping it quickly. Nowadays, I don’t feel at all guilty about dropping a book after chapter one if reading it looks like a mistake, whereas twenty years ago I would no more have stopped reading a book once started than I would have got up and left a dinner party half-way through. I know now that life is too short.
But there are deeper criticisms of the malign effects of the Internet. Jaron Lanier, in an NYT piece (he too has written a book about it; it’s interesting that both he and Carr, in spite of the alleged waning of attention spans, still thought this quixotic ‘book’ business was still worthwhile, rather than just tweeting their thoughts), suggests that we are increasingly deferring to computers, encouraged by inflated claims made for various pieces of software. This has a serious moral dimension – if we see computers as people, we may be led to see people as mere machines – but it also undermines original creativity, a point developed more in the book (OK, I skimmed a few summaries). We start to value mashups and compilations as more valuable than new work generated from scratch. Perhaps worst of all, we may end up letting stupid algorithms make actual decisions for us.
The first of these points is one that has been made before, and I believe it underlies many people’s aversion to the whole idea of AI. I think it’s undeniable that software producers are gravely inclined to overstate what their programs do, speaking of relatively simple data manipulation as though it involved genuine understanding and originality. But I don’t think that has really devalued our conception of humanity – not yet, anyway. Unless and until someone produces a machine which they claim is a conscious being, that remains a danger rather than a current problem. I don’t think we’re really in danger of delegating important decisions either; letting a computer suggest a track or a book is akin to random browsing of shelves; Lanier himself notes that even the advocates of the computers don’t allow the machines to design their products or run their companies.
There’s certainly something in the point about creativity. Hypertext encourages quotation, and I suspect that this has had an influence: an apposite quote is a frequent and respected way of contributing to discussions on popular forums and blogs, to an extent that would seem almost donnish if the quotes weren’t typically from Star Wars or the Simpsons rather than Shakespeare. It must surely be the case that sometimes on the Web people use text quotes, photoshopped images and so on when otherwise they would have chosen their own words or drawn their own pictures; but mostly the copied stuff is surely extra. It’s a bit like photography; when people could take photographs, they made fewer engravings and oil paintings, but mainly they made many more pictures (and let’s be honest – some of those uncreated paintings and engravings were no loss).
There are deeper issues still: has the Web influenced the way we perceive the world? I strongly suspect that films have to some degree influenced the way I see the world and represent my own life to myself. I can’t be the only person who has sometimes felt an irresistible urge to do a reaction shot for the benefit of a non-existent audience (one day it may exist if CCTV continues to spread). In one way I think the Internet may have a more pervasive effect. I remarked that the Internet is quotation-driven: but it doesn’t just quote, it comments. You could say, I think, that the essence of Web culture is to display something (text, picture, video) and provide comment in parallel (I suppose I’m exemplifying this as I describe it). I suspect that as time goes on reality will come to seem to us like the thing presented and our thoughts like the comments. Our consciousness may end up seeming like a set of lengthy footnotes. Perhaps David Foster Wallace was way ahead of us.