British neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield points out that prescriptions for drugs like Ritalin and diagnoses of ADHD are on the rise. She correlates that with an increase in computer use over the past decade, asks a few open ended questions and implies that computer use is rotting children’s brains.
I don’t doubt that computers will change how we think. I don’t doubt that they already have changed how we think. I, too, read Nicholas Carr’s essay in the Atlantic and silently nodded in agreement for most of it. Yes, I find it harder now than I once did to sit down a read for extended periods of time or to read without skimming paragraphs that seem unimportant — but I owe that to years spent in grad school and not to years spent on the Internet.
Writing changed human memory; most would argue along with Plato that it has made our memories worse because we don’t have to remember as much as our oral-tradition ancestors. Remember Hamlet? That guy quoted whole passages from plays he’d seen the players enact when he was a kid. I can’t do that — not with plays, anyhow, except for Hamlet. (I am well versed in my favorite lines from movies and more than enough song lyrics to drive my friends batty).
The point is this: New methods of communicating change the way people think. We cannot fairly judge whether it is better or worse than past methods because we are a part of the change, we are in the midst of it. Carr can’t tell me objectively whether computers are rotting his brain because he is plugged into the system, which he admits in his article.
Unfortunately, there won’t be answers for a long time, not until we’ve had time to establish traditions that fit with our new mode of communication. We can look back on the origins of writing and the printing press now with some semblance of objectivity. I’ll admit to a faster paced future and say that we should wait at least another 50 years for answers as to how computers and the Internet have changed the way we think.
Until then, we are left with nothing but questions without answers, both from Carr (“Is Google Making us Stupid?”) and from Greenfield (who leaves about a half dozen of them open in the BBC article).