If you use smart phones, laptops, and other devices a few hours a day and find them stimulating, if not captivating–don’t read Nicholas Carr’s . It is a well-written, highly provocative argument that will give you the willies. Using the Internet daily, he says, “to find and classify information, to formulate and articulate ideas, to share know-how and knowledge…. (p. 44)” has changed the wiring in our brain affecting how we read and think. Experimental studies show the plasticity of our brain in re-wiring neurons in response to frequent Internet use. And he invokes history–from Plato to the invention of the clock to 15th century printed books–to buttress his argument. He also uses his personal experiences.
As a professional writer and longtime user of computers, Carr was an early adopter. He grabbed ever quicker modems, glommed onto the Internet, larger hard drives, broadband, email, Google, Facebook, RSS feeders–anything that would make work (and life) faster, better, and connected. He spent a lot of time online jumping from link to link.
Then, a few years ago, Carr noticed changes in himself. “I’m not thinking the way I used to think [especially when] reading… I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose….Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do (p.5).” Being online, Carr, says “promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking (p. 116).” Moreover, the Internet delivers to our brain “repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive” stimuli that “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment (pp. 116-117).” Carr concludes; “Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the Internet (p.126).”
Carr is hardly a Luddite. As a writer, he fully appreciates the advantages of the Internet and amply cites them throughout the book. But he believes (and has evidence to support that belief) that the Internet has rewired our brain to become even more distracted and, you guessed it: shallow in thinking, reading, writing, and other intellectual pursuits.
Which brings me around to the job of schools. When computers hit schools in the 1980s, Carr mentions the excitement educators had introducing links. Hypertext, enthusiasts argued, would advance students’ critical thinking by letting them move from one point of view to another with a click of a key. Students would be liberated from the printed page and could leap to intellectual connections impossible in a textbook. By the early 1990s, however, enthusiasm had waned as researchers found that negotiating text studded with links increased readers’ cognitive load and weakened “their ability to comprehend and retain what they’re reading (p. 126).”One study found readers “distractedly” just clicking away and often “could not remember what they had or had not read (p. 127).” Links became distractions from in-depth engagement with content.
Such studies, of course, have not diminished the uses of links in the Internet or in what students read on laptop screens in schools. Links are ubiquitous.
(Yes, I use links in my blog posts. I also confess to deceiving myself when I say that I am judicious in which links I click onto.)
Suppose Carr is even half-right about the Net destroying sustained attention, encouraging distractions, and affecting neural pathways in such ways that undermine critical thinking, following arguments, and evaluating evidence. Even half-right means that pushing laptops, smart phones, clickers, and the next new thing into schools and university classrooms may not be such a splendid idea.
Considering how many educators and cognitive psychologists have been interested in right brain/left brain research, investigating the evidence-based assertions that Carr makes would seem imperative. Also consider the increase in diagnoses of children and youth with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder where inattention, distractedness, and impulsiveness mark their behavior. Surely ADHD has many sources beyond the Internet but, just as surely, the effects of increased screen time at home and in school should be examined as a factor.
The influence of the Internet on students’ thinking and reading outside and inside schools is seldom made a part of public discussion of high-tech devices. Pressure from high-tech promoting civic and business elites, economists who see human capital growth a function of technology,and techno-enthusiasts who want schools to feel the the transforming power of technology–see the 2010 draft of National Education Technology Plan–is unrelenting. Mainstream print and non-print media, continue to tout the virtues of technology in schools, the economy, and society. When it comes to schools, techno-enthusiasts and Utopians, who have yet to meet a computer they didn’t like, rule the roost. I suspect that Carr’s careful, well developed argument and evidence will be dismissed as just another skeptic. That would be a loss in keeping the public informed about the effects of the Internet on our children.