Food for Thought: Is the Internet Shaping Our Minds?

Out from under the pressures of the regular academic year, many of us finally have a chance to choose what we read rather than doing the reading we have to do to get our teaching done. But even summer reading without any direct application to the teaching of bcomm can help us approach the next school year with renewed inspiration and fresh insights.

My case in point is a book I picked up just because it looked interesting: Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? The editor, John Brockman, publishes, a forum to which visionaries from many fields—science, art, philosophy, computer science, psychology, and others—post their  thoughts on presssing questions of the day.  The title of this book was the question for the 2010 anniversary edition of Edge, and over 150 thinkers from myriad disciplines weighed in with their opinions.

Several commentators asserted flat out that the Internet hasn’t changed our thinking, while several others cited evidence that many hours of looking at a screen and coping with information overload lead your brain to develop more in some directions that others (I side with the latter group—it’s pretty well established that behaviors have physiological effects on the brain).

But most contributors didn’t focus on the biological perspective. Instead, they talked about how Internet use had changed their own thought processes, or they voiced their hopes and fears about the Internet’s influence on the future.

Here are some comments from the more hopeful observers:

  • “The speed and ubiquity of the Internet actually help us be on our critical guard. If a report on one site sounds implausible (or too plausible to be true), you can quickly check it on several more.” (Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist)
  • “People will call you on your crap.” (Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist)
  • “The Web has allowed the reinvention of the spoken word . . . . Recorded talks and lectures are spreading across the Web like wildfire. They are tapping into something primal and powerful.” (Chris Anderson, curator, TED Conferences, TED talks)
  • “As the Web becomes more comprehensive and searchable, it helps us see what’s missing in the world. The emergence of more effective ways to detect the absence of a piece of knowledge is . . . important to the growth of human knowledge.” (Eric Drexler, engineer, molecular technologist)
  • “For me, the Internet has led to that deep sense of collaboration, awareness, and ubiquitous knowledge that means that my thought processes are not bound by the meat machine that is my brain, nor my locality, nor my time.” (Peter Schwartz, business strategist, co-founder of Global Business Network)

As for the down side,

  • “The fact that we are exposed to more messages than ever before means that the attention dose allocated to each item is tiny. The result, for the general public, is a flourishing of extremist views on everything . . . [and] the diminishing role of factual knowledge in the thinking process.” (Haim Harari, physicist)
  • “The Internet, by dint of its sheer volume of information, . . . strongly encourages overly rapid information inhalation . . . . For deep understanding—in particular, the sort that arises from the careful following of one thread of thought—the Internet is not very helpful.” (Anthony Aguirre, physicist)
  • “The Internet pushes us all toward the immediate. The now. Every inquiry is to be answered right away, and every fact or idea is only as fresh as the time it takes to refresh a page. And as a result, speaking for myself, the Internet makes me mean. Resentful. Short-fused. Reactionary . . . . I feel as though I am speeding up when I am actually becoming less productive, less thoughtful, and less capable of asserting any agency over the world in which I live.” (Douglas Rushkoff, media analyst)
  • “Those people who do not gain fundamental literacies of attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network awareness are in danger of all the pitfalls critics point out—shallowness, credulity, distraction, alienation, addiction.” (Howard Rheingold, communications expert)

Ruminating on what all this could mean for my teaching, I’ve come up with these thoughts so far:

  • I need to make “information literacy” a higher priority in my classes, taking the time to show students how to be critical of online sources and pushing them to go beyond “surfing” to more in-depth, critical research.
  • I need to keep forcing my students away from the Internet do to other kinds of research. (Last quarter, I advised a report-writing team to visit some community centers to look for information relevant to their project. The next class meeting, I asked them what they’d found out . . . and they still hadn’t been able to force themselves to visit any centers. Now that I see how averse the Internet has made them to in-person, on-site research, I will step up my efforts to get them out—to interact with others, see things with their own eyes, and see how much one can learn from more real “media” than the Internet.)
  • I need to help them see that “collaboration” isn’t just sending each other a bunch of messages. They need to understand better that the goal is a good product, not just a quick one or a sufficient flurry of interaction.
  • I need to incorporate more videos into my classes, particularly interviews with or talks by thoughtful business people, so I can show my students what careful reasoning (or its opposite) looks like, in a form that will hold their attention.
  • In general, I need to incorporate more activities into my classes that force the students to slow down so they can think, remember, and carefully judge.

It’s good to step back and recharge. If you’ve gained some insights from your summer reading, please share them.

2 thoughts on “Food for Thought: Is the Internet Shaping Our Minds?

  1. As a complement to this thought-provoking post I suggest the book
    Brain Rules by John Medina… 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School.

    In sum, the 12 Principles relate to exercise, survival, wiring, attention,
    short-term memory, long-term memory, sleep, stress, sensory integration, vision, gender and exploration.

    This book has re-shaped my thinking on course development and
    syllabi since I have a tendency to try and cover too much content
    during a 10 week term. The section on attention was especially
    helpful relative to multi-tasking and distraction. John’s narratives
    on remarkabe individuals makes this a fascinating and “funtastic” read. Enjoy!

    Tom Pickering
    Pierce College
    Adjunct Assistant Professor


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