Smart Phones and Dumb Humans: Is Web Technology Messing With Your Brain?

Photo: boris

So I finally signed up for Twitter. There's now a little widget down there on the left sidebar that displays my "tweets."

I'm at the Clueless Newbie stage of twitterdom and still have no idea what to tweet, or how to get people to "follow me," or even what the damn thing is supposed to be for. Also, I don't own a smart cell phone, just a dumb one (which is appropriate considering I never recharge it can't remember the phone number), so fear not--you won't have to read my thoughts from the grocery store about what brand of yogurt I'm buying.

My day is just not interesting enough for me to report on my doings every few minutes.

"What are you doing?" Twitter asks, all perky and hopeful.
Photo: Netzkobold


Well, gosh, Twitter...

I'm sitting here on my ass in front of the computer screen again, trying to write a blog post. And later, I might go into the kitchen for a snack! I'm thinking some little almond crunchy things and a glass of milk. Oh hell, that's way more than 140 characters and I just remembered...

Nobody gives a fuck what I'm doing right now.




So I'm thinking maybe I'll use Twitter to point out interesting health studies I come across, or fun videos, or stray thoughts, or blog announcements, other miscellaneous items that I don't necessarily want to write a whole post about.

Or, more likely--after a couple of weeks I'll stop using it entirely and pretend I never signed up. I joined Twitter for the same compelling reason a teenager one day starts wearing all her t-shirts inside out: because she figures that's what the cool kids are doing and she wants to be one of them.

(I can now hear my mother saying: "but what if all your blogger friends decided to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you do that too?" And my answer would be..."No way, of course not!... Well, not unless I got a humongous boost in page views or a cool sidebar badge or something.")

Anyway, what I will most certainly not do with Twitter is use it properly, like a professional blogger or a young person would. I will not read or skim through thousands of tweets a day, replying @hither and @yon, gaining thousands of followers and networking and building new relationships and bringing hordes of new visitors to Cranky Fitness. That sounds like way too much work. I'm already terrible at keeping up with lovely blogfriends I've met through the comments here. Instead, I will fail to keep up, and watch as my 7 followers drop to 3, and then when I'm down to zero followers I'll try to figure out if there's a way I can follow myself--without defying the laws of physics.

But here's the thing: my inability to multi-task, and my stubborn resistance to new internet technology might actually be a good thing! At least according to Nicholas Carr, who's written some fascinating and controversial stuff about modern technology and the human mind.

Carr's contention is that the web and other aspects of modern technology are changing the way our brains work--and not for the better. We may have access to a lot of information, and may be able to take on many tasks at once, but as a result we're getting all stupid and shallow.

Note: this is an oversimplification; Carr is much more balanced than that. But don't blame me, that's at least partly the point! Oversimplification is all we have time for now, and who am I to argue when it means less work for lazy bloggers?

Anyway, here are some brief excerpts from recent articles in The Sun ("Computing the Cost: Nicholas Carr On How The Internet Is Rewiring Our Brains") and The Atlantic ("Is Google Making Us Stupid?")

See what you think; is he on to something? Does any of this sound familiar?

"Over the past 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....I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. ... Now I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text."

"I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet... Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets, reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link."

"Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Anyone else notice this phenomenon? I know my ability to concentrate on difficult tasks seems to have suffered quite a bit since I've gotten more used to endless distractions of the web. On the other hand, I discovered when I took a couple of weeks off from the web recently that I'm perfectly able to immerse myself in a well-written novel--especially if it's funny or compelling or features hot lesbian love scenes between 18th century English aristocrats.

Anyway.

Carr goes on to point out the ways in which our culture is changing to accommodate our web-altered short attention spans, and brings up other negative aspects of our technological dependence: the costs in terms of our relationship with people, nature, and our privacy. In particular, he worries that we will "emphasize efficiency of thought over depth of thought. I fear we’re going to lose...the kind of contemplative, reflective intelligence that is most valuable, most human."

I'm not sure I agree with all of his darkest scenarios, but I worry about some of these things too. However, aside from a study comparing new computer users to experienced ones (that shows some brain changes) the articles are a little light on research. (And I have to confess, true to his predictions, I didn't read every word of either article and it could be he had a lot more proof of the whole re-wiring hypothesis in there that I didn't see). Carr has also written several books and has a new one coming out in June, called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains; perhaps that's where all the convincing "our brains are totally fucked up now" research is.

However, whatever the research says, the whole idea of the internet messing with my brains definitely got me thinking! ... At least for a few seconds.

***Personal footnote for Cranky Team Co-bloggers: You know that section of the Official Cranky Fitness Style Manual on "Appropriate Language" (pg 243, paragraph 2), that reads: "In order not to offend sensitive readers or potential advertisers, please try to avoid the gratuitous use of swearwords, or if you must use them, consider the strategic use of asterisks-- i.e., "bullsh*t"; "assh*le"; or "f*cked up?" Um, you can go ahead and cross that section out. Thx, Crabby.

Are any of you on Twitter? And if not, would you bother to look at a sidebar thingy on the blog that had health links or should I not bother? And what do you think about the notion that the internet is... um... doing something bad to our... wait I forgot what I was gonna ask you.

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