Digital alarmists are wrong

The latest attack on the Internet and on computers in general is Nicholas Carr's book, "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains."

Carr and other digital alarmists make a case that seems plausible, at least on the surface. They argue that the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of new communication tools trap us in a shallow culture of constant interruption as we frenetically tweet, text and e-mail. This in turn leaves us little time for deep reading, reflection and serious conversation — pensive activities traditionally thought to build knowledge and wisdom.

The alarmists cite the concept of "neural plasticity" and talk of technology "rewiring" the brain to convince us that the new distractions make us not just less willing but less able, on a physiological level, to focus.

Whenever you hear that something is changing your brain, you ought to be worried — or at least the person telling you wants you to be worried. But does a cultural change like this necessarily entail a fundamental change to the brain? Most of the evidence these critics offer is anecdotal: They report feeling less able to concentrate and think clearly now than they did before they started frequenting the Internet. But it could be that they are less able to concentrate now than they were 10 to 15 years ago simply because they are 10 to 15 years older.

The appeals to neural plasticity, backed by studies showing that traumatic injuries can reorganize the brain, are largely irrelevant. The basic plan of the brain's "wiring" is determined by genetic programs and biochemical interactions that do most of their work long before a child discovers Facebook and Twitter. There is simply no experimental evidence to show that living with new technologies fundamentally changes brain organization in a way that affects one's ability to focus. Of course, the brain changes any time we form a memory or learn a new skill, but new skills build on our existing capacities without fundamentally changing them. We will no more lose our ability to pay attention than we will lose our ability to listen, see or speak.

The idea that the Internet might make us dumber has some intuitive appeal, because it is easy to see how the cognitive performance of people around us drops when they are distracted. Who among us is not scared to see a driver chatting on a phone and looking back at the kids while weaving through city traffic? But the notion that prolonged focus and deep reading mark the best path to wisdom and insight is just an assumption, one that may be an accidental consequence of the printing press predating the computer. To book authors like us it seems a heretical notion, but it is possible that spending 10 or more hours engrossed in a single text might not be the optimal regimen for building brainpower.

Before the Computer Age, chess grandmasters used to study chess books before matches. But now they use laptops to review hundreds of games in rapid succession, in effect "downloading" into their minds knowledge that is customized for their next opponent. They access the knowledge as they need it, discarding it after the match, and the result is that today's grandmasters play the game better than their predecessors did. Visual perception and attention work the same way: They grant us conscious but temporary access to the information in our world that we need at any moment, then quickly discard it as we shift attention to other places, objects or events.

If we consider all the implications of this "just in time" approach to acquiring and using information, we may be forced to reevaluate the nature of knowledge, wisdom and intelligence. It may make less sense to focus on the capabilities of an individual person, and more sense to think about the individual plus the cloud of technology and information that he or she has access to at any given moment. This human-computer-Internet collective is more knowledgeable and arguably more intelligent than a single human being could be alone. By this view, as more and more information becomes available on the Internet, we become not dumber but smarter.

For every way the Internet gives us to waste time, there is a way to increase the scope and diversity of our knowledge and to work collectively on problems. It was not long ago that scientists worked mostly within their own laboratories, collaborating only with students and assistants. Today scientists are more likely to collaborate in larger, more diverse teams that often span the globe. With rapid access to diverse information online, ideas, data and resources can be shared faster and on a scale that was impossible at any point in history.

Although the case that technology increases our intelligence is at least as plausible as the gloomy idea that it is changing our brains for the worse, there are real downsides to the instant availability of torrents of information. The danger comes not from the information itself, or from how it could rewire our brains, but from the way we think about our own knowledge and abilities. As the psychologists Leon Rozenblit and Frank Keil discovered, people tend to suffer from an illusion of knowledge: a tendency to mistake surface-level familiarity with deep understanding. As more information becomes readily available, that sense of familiarity grows and grows, and with it the illusion of knowledge. On-demand access to reams of data can also trick us into mistaking knowledge we could obtain quickly for knowledge we already have and can act upon. And if the illusion leads us to neglect the acquisition of true knowledge, we as individuals could become dumber as a result.

Additionally, the more different ways technology gives us to multitask, the more chances we have to succumb to an illusion of attention — the idea that we are paying attention to and processing more information than we really are. Each time we text while we are driving and do not get into an accident, we become more convinced that we can do two (or three or four …) things at once, when in reality almost no one can multitask successfully and we are all at greater risk when we do so. Our capacity to learn, understand and multitask hasn't changed with the onslaught of technology, but our confidence in our own knowledge and abilities have.

So Google is not making us stupid, PowerPoint is not destroying literature, and the Internet is not really changing our brains. But they may well be making us think we're smarter than we really are, and that is a dangerous thing.

Christopher Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College in New York. Daniel Simons is a psychology professor at the University of Illinois. They are the authors of the new book, "The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us." They blog at theinvisiblegorilla.com.

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