This morning I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education called "Your Brain on Google" (unfortunately it is only available with a subscription). This article was in reaction to the longer article which appeared earlier in The Atlantic "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (which you can read without a subscription). The Chronicle article collects quotes from various sources about the effect of the internet on how we read and process information. My favorite was from Andrew Sullivan, Senior Editor, The Times:
"I'm certainly not more stupid than I used to be; and I'm much, much better and more instantly informed.
However, the way in which I now think and write has subtly - or not so subtly - altered. I process information far more rapidly and seem able to absorb multiple sources of information simultaneously in ways that would have shocked my teenage self. ...
Right now, we may be maximally overwhelmed by all this accessible information - but the time may come when our mastery of the new world allows us to gain more perspective on it.
Both articles discuss the evolution of the human brain and the concern that people are losing the ability to read anything longer than a blog entry. I don't think that's the case with me, but I certainly don't read as many books as I used to. I'm a book consumer and have a house full and a serious lack of will power in bookstores. I still read just about every night, but I no longer spend large chunks of free time with my head in the pages. Used to be, I would get up on a Sunday morning, make a pot of coffee and sit down with a book for several hours. Now I have to check my email first, and then I'll need to read the headlines (at several news sources) and I might as well check in on the blogs I read regularly. And suddenly half the morning is gone.
I had a conversation recently with a friend about people who are not constantly tapped into the internet. Both of us find it hard to understand those people. Some of these are the folks who have stereotypical (but incorrect) knowledge about the internets. They assume when the rest of us are 'surfing' that we are in chat rooms full of strangers (bad child molester types usually), or we cannot help but stumble across lots of porn, or we have social issues and cannot connect with real people. These tend to be people of an older generation than mine. But you also meet the people of my generation who avoid it (they usually don't own TVs either). They claim to have much richer lives because they connect with people face to face.
I have a large group of friends locally that I am in touch with daily (sometimes hourly). We see eachother all the time for lunch, parties, barbeques, politicing stuff, etc. and it was only very recently that we all realized none of us knew eachother's phone numbers. How could that be when I have conversations with these people every day? We share all sorts of information (instantaneously) and when we meet face to face we all have the same experiences, have read the same news stories, seen the same video clips, and generally have a shared culture that wouldn't exist without the internet.
But look at yourself right now. How many tabs do you have open in Firefox? How many places do you need to go every day to check on things (besides the news)? Gmail, Google Reader or Bloglines, Facebook, My Space, Good Reads (that's my latest), Ravelry, and the list goes on... Every new thing becomes more of a time suck and a responsibility. Do you feel guilty clicking "Mark all as read" when you're overwhelmed? How many times did you watch that dancing guy sponsored by the gum company? How many people did you forward it to?
I love my connected self as much as I love my bookish self. I can't stand to be away from the computer for long periods of time. It makes me twitchy. And I don't think it's making me stupid, but maybe I am more knowledgeable about lots of stuff that doesn't really matter? I think guiltily of the steadily growing pile of unread books in the corner of the bedroom, but I also think that my life right now wouldn't be the same if I didn't spend so much time on the computer. The books will be read eventually (unless I find some horrible reviews of them on line and decide they're not worth reading...) and I can't imagine a day will come when I find I don't have the attention span to get caught up in a good book and stay up reading until the wee hours of the morning.