Our Evolving Internet Brain And The Death Of Deep Thought

December 11, 2012

If I am late to the party on Nicholas Carr’s fantastic 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominated book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains,” please forgive me. It’s fantastic, go read it if you haven’t.

Carr focuses on a subject I have been thinking about more and more these days. Or at least trying to think about. Specifically, the paradox of how in this unprecedented age of information and connection, where any content is available at your behest, I feel not only less informed but less intelligent. How my ADD is suddenly developing a nervous, twitchy anxiety disorder.

Carr summarizes a similar feeling:

“Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. […] Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

The Internet's Brain - Inside Google's Data CenterHe argues that the medium of the Internet is fundamentally altering not just the way we digest information but our very process of thought. In other words, and at the risk of sounding too Lamarckian, our formerly offline, Gutenberg brain is evolving, rewiring our neural pathways into an infinitely connected, if mostly surface deep, Internet brain. And if we start to think about the way we think, especially in comparative terms to how we used to think, it would be tough for us not to find ourselves digesting content and information in more and more Google-esque ways.

The Internet, both vast and deep, has become not a place for the vertical intensity of information but rather its horizontal breadth. Where digesting the entirety of a piece of content (gasp, a novel!), seems antiquated in its immutable, disconnected physicality. Instead, we surf hyperlink to hyperlink, gathering headline quips and back-of-the-envelope summaries of articles, whose association with, but not inherent understanding of, makes us feel more intelligent, feel more connected.

Shallows coverCarr also rightfully references the great media scholar Marshall McLuhan, who’s “the medium is the message” drumbeat has been thunderously pounded for decades. McLuhan’s thesis is that it is not content that matters, it is rather the medium of the content delivery that shapes our understanding. The Internet is a perfect validation of this principle. For it is not the content itself that is shaping our understanding of the world but rather how the formal rigors of the Internet forces content to be created and digested in specific ways.

It is not the quality of journalism, writing, or content creation available right now, which is arguably as good as it has been in human history, that is altering our worldview. In fact, that quality matters little because the way we interact with this content, the way we consume and understand it, is dictated by the formal structures in place as ordered by the medium.

In a Google society, a piece of content must inherently be designed to be search engine optimizable, or it risks never getting read. It must withstand the shrinking attention spans of an increasingly anxious Google mind. If there is no hook in the first paragraph, then the reader may move on to an article that does. Content becomes designed specifically for the medium; bending and contorting itself in whatever way it needs to to stay relevant and apropos to the Google brain. And in this way, the echo chamber increases in volume. An information Ouroboros that leads us to shorter, pithier, and inherently depthless content. Any search results after the first page on Google are not examined. If you cannot convey an idea in a tweet, it is not worthwhile.

This is something I think about a lot. It would seem that, if not dead, the era of deep thinking is certainly in peril and at a minimum, a low-tech passé. As we become inextricably connected to screens/devices (an iPhone in range at all times, an iPad as much a middle class signifier as a mortgage) our brains will only become further Google-ized. As a content creator, does one try to buck the system and craft something as folksy and old-world as a well-told story? Or must we shift the paradigm of what that even means toward the ever-shrinking box of consumer attention spans?

By writing this very blog post am I contributing to a culture of aggregation cum intelligence? Is that inescapable?

And what happens if I admit that I only read the first 25 pages of Carr’s book?