The Depths, not The Shallows

In 2011 Nicolas Carr published The Shallows, a book about how the Internet is rerouting our neural pathways, and not for the better.   By fragmenting information, the net makes us “ever more adept at scanning and skimming,” but reduces “our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.”

Now Clive Thompson, another tech journalist, has published a book that makes the opposite argument.  Rather than siphoning off vital function, the Internet can help us think better.  Thompson’s book is reviewed in today’s New York Times Book Review by Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling biography Steve Jobs.

Isaacson begins by citing the well-known tale of Gary Kasparov’s 1997 defeat at chess by the computer Deep Blue.  While many people know of this defeat of man by machine, few know what happened thereafter:

The year after his defeat by Deep Blue, Kasparov set out to see what would happen if he paired a machine and a human chess player in a collaboration…. The result: human-machine teams, even when they didn’t include the best grandmasters or most powerful computers, consistently beat teams composed solely of human grandmasters or superfast machines.

Thompson also quotes and then critiques Socrates famous critique of writing.  “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories,” Plato quoted Socrates as saying. “They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” Yet, quoting Thompson, Isaacson notes:

Socrates failed to foresee “the types of complex thought that would be possible once you no longer needed to mentally store everything you’d encountered,” and he surmises that the same will turn out to be true of our ability to digitally store and easily access huge amounts of information and memories outside of our own brains.

Isaacson alights upon the most common contemporary example of Socrates prophecy.  As children many of us could memorize phone numbers.  Now few of us do.  Perhaps it has even become more difficult for us, since we are unaccustomed to memorizing rote information, which is easily accessible online.  Writes Isaacson:

My own mind is cluttered with phone numbers I memorized as a kid, but nowadays I outsource that task to my smartphone. I’m eager to make this and similar tasks even easier, and improve my mind (or at least free it up for more daydreaming), by getting my hands on Google Glass.

I find the argument that “creative minds are being strengthened rather than atrophied by the ability to interact easily with the Web” compelling.   Human brain can do more than store and process information.  One could even argue that computers do this better.  Humans can also create, critique, and daydream.  This is the thinking we should be doing.

image: Flickr/JD Hancock

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