Picture: lol. 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.


  1. 1. Vicente says:

    Very interesting. Just a small comment: I believe there is consensus amongst neurologists that phyical exercise has a much more stronger effect on intellectual skills, particularly on memory (effects observed in hippocampus neurons),than intellectual exercises or tranning. Nintendo brain-something kind of stuff, proven to be useless.

    Despite, I am not old enough to suffer ageing effects on my memory, I can say that I have significantly experienced this exercise effect on myself.

    Very different of course is the issue of the psichological and social effects of the internet.

  2. 2. Ken Marable says:

    Two things:

    First, looking anecdotally, I have found that I have a shorter attention span since using the Internet more (although, is that, as you say, just aging?). However, I have also found myself better able to task switch and process new information faster. So, on a typical morning, I get bored if an online article is too long, but I may easily read and understand dozens of shorter (and not necessarily less intellectual) articles on a very wide range of topics. So rather than reading long discussions on a single topic at a sitting, I can comprehend and participate in far more discussions across more topics.

    Secondly, just looking at the internet and theorizing what psychological changes it could cause can lead in many directions. Information and topics are less compartmentalized leading us to see the world as more interconnected than before. Interactive media means people will perceive the world as something they can Influence, rather than just passively perceive. Both our these are just as valid theories that can be derived from looking at the structure and use of the Internet as theories about lack of memory and short attention spans. Until I see some conclusive studies, I’m going to believe the internet is beneficial as mentioned above and their theories are just poppycock. Without evidence, my uninformed opinion is as good as their uninformed opinions. :)

  3. 3. Charles Wolverton says:

    IMO, using the Internet is like any other activity that can be thought of as a skill: it develops with time and can develop in either beneficial or detrimental directions. The Internet can be an incredibly useful research tool or a debilitating time waster; a resource for becoming knowledgeable on a hotly debated issue or a means of propagating totally false beliefs to a largely naive public; a way to become engaged in unbounded communities of common interest or disengaged from society. To paraphrase a familiar slogan, “the Internet doesn’t kill minds, Internet misuse kills minds”.

    “if we see computers as people, we may be led to see people as mere machines”

    Apparently, we tend to empathize more with creatures that look somewhat like us. This suggests that we might also empathize more with creatures who resemble us in others ways. So, it is entirely possible that as talking computers become more common, we will empathize more with them and perhaps even assume moral obligations toward them – just as we do for pets and are beginning to do for animals raised by factory-farming.

    “we may end up letting stupid algorithms make actual decisions for us.”

    Susan Blackmore addresses this issue here:


    although she focuses instead on intelligent algorithms. (My guess is that those are even more dangerous.)

    As for attention span and aging, I suspect that Peter is on the right track with his analysis. I almost certainly am near the top of the age range of Internet users and years of Internet use, but nevertheless have no problem at all reading challenging material at length and in depth, in print or on-line. And although like Peter I have come to skim or ignore lots of on-line material that I would previously have read, that’s only because I have better uses for the time saved – like reading about consciousness at CE!

  4. 4. Lloyd Rice says:

    I just finished the Carr book. I thought the first half was interesting, thoughtful and informative: the part that reported on the use of DNA knowledge to enhance our grasp of human prehistory. I thought the last half was less interesting: more speculation on the effects of our increasing knowledge of genetics and evolution. For example, his treatment of linguistic information did acknowledge the decline of reliance on language reconstructions based on vocabulary. But he did not deal well with what has been done since — and did not at all mention whether grammatical structure might play a role on language family reconstruction. He did have a late chapter ostensibly dealing with latter day assaults on human evolution and did, I thought, deal fairly if briefly with the question of whether evolution is still in play in determining our future.

    I have a fairly keen eye for the way words are used and spelled. I recently got an email in which the acronym “lol” was spelled “lul”. To me, that indicates that is is used, even conversationally, as a full-blown word, that its acronym status has vanished. I don’t know that that is good or bad, but it certainly attests to the power of the Internet. A recent cartoon made the same point (sorry, I could not find it in the old paper stack). I do not think it would be a bad thing if widespread use of email led to a reconsideration of English spelling. It is currently among the worst of the world’s languages — too many holdovers from long-divorced parent language usages.

    What if we did eventually start to think of people as machines? Hopefully, by that time, we might have a broader view of what machines could be. But the effects on philosophy and religion would be enormous.

  5. 5. Vicente says:

    I don’t think we’re really in danger of delegating important decisions either

    I have been lately involved in these kinds of matters, and the real system is pretty rigid. Is not just that for the moment “important” decisions are not delegated. If a human is going to make a decision assissted by “Decision Aid Systems”, there is usually a strong regulation to control the process. I have participated in committees and boards analysing these issues in certain fields, and I can tell you the establishment is very very conservative. I believe it will take a very long time before machines operate at decision level in Safety-of-Life systems or Liability Critical systems .

    Regarding your attention span evolution, which I share, could it be that it is also that the kind of issues you have to pay attention as life passes require a different kind of attention (broader)…. for example, would somebody that needs to pay attention to an object for a longtime, a craftsman or an art restorer, or a surgeon, keeps the capacity of attention you had in you childhood?

  6. 6. StoPPeR says:

    Garry Kasparov has made an interesting observation with his involvement with AI.

    Garry Kasparov On ‘Chess Metaphors’: The Chess Master And The Computer

    The “Flow Theory” approach to AI seems to tackle this obstacle noted by Kasparov and others.

    Intelligence Dynamics: A new approach toward intelligence, Masahiro Fujita

    Too bad programmers are “lazy” by nature, maybe.


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