For the past couple years, a theory has been growing vaguely in the back of my mind, but recently I've finally been able to shed some light on it. In a nutshell, as the Web becomes more ubiquitous in my every day life, I've felt a ramping level of stress and mental fatigue - and I don't think it's a coincidence.
It's hard to imagine a life before the smart phone, much less life before the Internet. In the 15 or so years since the Web's world debut, it has evolved beyond a point that few of even the most clairvoyant minds could speculate. The Web has become so essential in day to day life that it would be hard to withdraw even if we wanted to; that is, there is definitely an addictive quality in the fiber optic lines that feed our ever-increasing demand for current, relevant information.
I am part of the last few generations that can even remember a time before the Web, and part of the first few that do not remember a time before PCs. In fact, my father was writing software in the 70s - the decade before I was born. So, the birth of the Web is almost contemporaneous with my own. I grew up learning to read, write, and type; and while I (thankfully) took to reading as a hobby, I was highly enamored by the computer and the (seemingly) limitless possibilities it offered. Like it or not, the fact of the matter is that much of my childhood was spent behind a computer screen, and that trend has steadily increased into adulthood.
Now it's 2010, and the Web is basically a mainstay of society. Google, whose stated goal is to "organize the world's information and make it accessible to everyone," has already succeeded with a large portion of the world's information, and adds to its index every day. Not only has the Web taken over the way we share information, but the way we share our lives: it has moved beyond the informative and into the social realm. Services such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have already woven themselves into the fabric of our social world in a way that makes them almost indispensable. And it doesn't stop there.
The Web is unique as a technology in the sense that it is assimilating other technologies. We are spending less time watching our TVs and more time watching the same programs online. Do we even listen to radio anymore? Not usually by choice - and if we do, half the time that's online too. When's the last time you wrote a letter? For that matter, when's the last time you wrote with a pen? (rent checks or grocery lists don't count.) Now books are going online, and even elementary schools are starting to make the switch from paper to internet-enabled digital reading devices. Not to mention clocks, maps, telephone... the list goes on.
I love the conveniences of the Internet as much as (and maybe more than...) the next person, and maybe that's why I've also begun to worry about the effect that it is having on my mind. For the past couple years I've been having increasing trouble concentrating, formulating complex logic, comprehending reading, and even simply thinking, be it creatively or contemplatively. I've noticed a decrease in patience (not that I had much to begin with) and an increase in scattered, disorganized thinking. I used to love to write creatively, but have not had the attention span or the imagination. Even my sleep has suffered; I rarely dream anymore, and fantasy is all but lost in my dreams. I often wake with the feeling that I spent the night in routine (but mentally taxing) thought patterns; sometimes my dreams are just continuations of the inner monologue that narrates my data-collecting during the day.
I know I'm not the only one experiencing this. It has been a somewhat discussed issue in the media as of late. Microsoft even lampooned it in their advertising campaign for their Bing search engine, depicting victims of "Search overload" and touting Bing as the cure. But is the cure to "Search overload" really smarter search?
This is basically what had been running through my mind (nebulously) for the past year when I came across an article about an upcoming book titled, "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains" by Nicholas Carr. While I am admittedly part of the dwindling few who still go out of their way to read books on paper, this was the first time in a while that I can remember being excited about buying a new release. Carr expertly describes the phenomena of the Information Age without resorting to whistle blowing or finger pointing. Beginning with a history of information-technology, he goes on to show scientifically how our brains adapt to the tools that we use, and while this isn't necessarily a bad thing (without it we wouldn't be able to evolve1), there are always pros and cons. As our brains compensate to increase performance of new abilities, there will always be old ones that are lost.
Carr's overall premise and final warning is that while computers and the Internet have given us many advantages, including improved productivity and resourcefulness, they also have changed the way we absorb information, and in turn are literally changing the way our brains behave on the neurological level. We may be gaining a wealth of knowledge and the skills to access it, but in turn we're losing our ability for deep, contemplative thinking (among other things). In effect, computers are making us more like themselves.
I also tend to wonder how valuable this "wealth" of online information really is, when I consider the complex makeup of the human brain. We have designed our technological systems to treat our brains and memory as if they were also digital, when in reality nothing is further from the truth. With all the knowledge in the world at our fingertips, is it possible that we are simply deluding the knowledge that we actually possess? After a heavy session of online searching, sometimes I feel almost more disconnected from the subject than when I started.
All that being said, I love the Internet. I think it's great to have so much information available in one place. I don't think it would be possible or even plausible to change the technology or boycott it... After all many of us make our living directly or indirectly online, myself included (maybe I should title this "Bitchings of a computer programmer"). I do however think that we should regularly evaluate the tools that we use, and be aware of their effects on our lives. With so many different information sources, services, and devices, I would propose that we are entering an age of "Distraction Management", where our productivity and well being are largely dependent on whether we can harness the power of these tools without them driving us mad.
- 1. Evolution by adaptation, not Darwinian theory.