Jun 062010

In a bit of technological determinism, Nicholas Carr suggests that the Internet is making us dumber. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, he writes that “a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is also turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.” Knowing what distraction does to expertise development, in 2007, here at Cutter Consortium in an executive report on Web 2.0, I had written:

“Unfortunately, Web 2.0, with its high interrupt-driven, instant gratification, rich Internet application (RIA)-powered user interfaces, may be creating a context that destroys expertise before it can develop. Expertise development requires dedicated, uninterrupted time on a complex task so that a human mind can learn how to codify, abstract, and then relate disparate pieces of complex information. It frequently requires other human mentors.”

The difference in what I had written and what Carr and others in the media are saying lies in who or what is harming whom. To illustrate the difference, here are the two perspectives to think about:

  1. The Net is making us dumber.
  2. The way we naturally use the Net is making us dumber.

The distinction between these two perspectives is critical. In perspective 1 the technology changes the human mind. In perspective 2, unregulated human behavior changes the human mind, aided by the technology. The two perspectives can be further described as such:

  1. Technology is destructively changing the human being
  2. Technology accelerates or magnifies natural human instincts and behavior

These are two very different propositions. In the former, humans are implied as defenseless against the powers of technology. In the latter, technology is a tool to amplify or accelerate human instincts and behavior for better or for worse. Let’s take this discussion into a different domain. Consider the two propositions:

  1. Automobiles are killing us. Automobiles are engendering a false sense of security and overconfidence in humans and are killing thousands of people a year.
  2. Human nature, which has been designed by nature to be easily distracted, is failing to drive automobiles properly.

In the technological determinism arguments, the technology is made out to be the causative agent wreaking havoc on the human condition. In the human-centered arguments, the human being is the causative agent engaging in errant behavior.

Carr’s point, despite its techno-centric and ever-so-slight Luddite coloring, is well-taken and may help to rally people around a change in human behavior that can correct this ill. What is that change in human behavior? Learning to monitor and control one’s own behavior! Being self-aware of how one learns and thinks is a crucial skill that people need to and can develop early, even in childhood. These metacognitive skills are essential for living in a distraction-rich environment. Knowing when you are being easily distracted and when you have to spend deep thought in a single subject or concept for an extended period of time is extraordinarily important and has been for eons. While the Internet provides for easy distractions, so too has all sorts of things in prior generations. Developing great cognitive skill in any complex domain requires dedicated and effortful focus, study and practice for extended periods of times (even hours) for many years.

In the area of cognitive psychology, researchers have been identifying two systems or modes of processing within the human brain. This two-system model, is called dual-processing theory (see Evans, 2003 and Nobel prize-winner Kahneman, 2003, for excellent overviews). It describes the characteristics of the two systems (System 1 and System 2) as follows:

System 1: A system universally shared between humans and animals. System 1 processes are rapid, parallel, often emotional, effortless, automatic in nature, at least partially non-conscious or often processed before we may be consciously aware.

System 2: A system that is evolutionally recent and uniquely human (not shared with animals). Its processes are effortful, slow and sequential in nature, and more immune to emotional bias than System 1. It relies heavily on limited working memory capacity. System 2 allows us to generate abstract, hypothetical and rule-based thinking that System 1 cannot provide.

Both systems can be in use simultaneously and we often switch our mental processing (normally unaware we are switching) between these two systems. People who want to be expert in a particular domain have to exercise System 2 in order to deeply learn their material. Once the domain knowledge has been adequately stored, reprocessed and put to use sufficiently, it gets “burned” into long-term memory in complex ways and then becomes available to System 1. Experts in a domain who have to make rapid decisions or judgments can use what was learned by System 2 within a fast and effortless System 1 process. That’s why human beings are smarter than animals. We can direct our own thoughts to develop deep skill in all sorts of new ways.

If you have been engaging in System 2 processes when reading this, you might be detecting where this is heading. My conclusions are as follows:

  1. Most of the time, human beings engage in System 1 reasoning because it is fast and effortless. System 1 is particularly vulnerable to distraction and this is as nature intended. Distraction is good when the organism has to respond to new and potentially threatening events.
  2. Most of us exercise System 2 sparingly. Why? It is effortful and takes time and energy. However, System 2 is the source of all that makes us distinctly human and lets us learn a vast repertoire of new skills.
  3. Without good metacognitive skills that would redirect our attention from an easy, distraction-laden System 1 form of processing to the focused and effortful System 2 form of processing, the Internet can make us dumber.
  4. With good metacognitive skills that can engage in effortful System 2 processing, the Internet will make us much, much smarter, far faster and less expensively than any other form of technology that came before, including the book.

The current debate on whether new technology is affecting the human mind is a very old debate. Ancient Romans had a similar debate about how the sundial was negatively affecting human behavior. Today we may scoff at the sundial debate because of its temporal distance from us, yet we are engaging in a very similar debate today regarding the Internet. At each point in human history, human beings have faced this dilemma of new technology. I contend it is far more fruitful to think about what role each of us has in directing our own thoughts and learning. In a bit of hand-wringing, Carr summarizes his article by saying:

“It is this control, this mental discipline, that we are at risk of losing as we spend ever more time scanning and skimming online. If the slow progression of words across printed pages damped our craving to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Internet indulges it. It returns us to our native state of distractedness, while presenting us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with.”

Mankind’s existence has been always subject to risk by its own inventions. That is not new. Only if we have been asleep in System 1 processing, victim to enthusiastic Internet pundit Jedi-mind tricks about how wonderful the Net will be, would we be surprised by the threats the Net brings. Carr may be serving a purpose here in getting those who bought everything off the truck with regard to the promise the Net may bring to now skeptically look at what parts of the new technology have great use and what parts will require careful navigation. Not all is as it seems and all claims, including these regarding the so-called dangers of the Net, should be critically examined.

The battle for mental discipline is also not new, nor was it won by the book. For all its apparent cognitive advantages the book has not nor will it be, by itself, a tool for improved self-discipline. The world has had no shortage of fools who read books with a short-circuited System 2. What makes for mental discipline are cultures and communities dedicated to teaching mental discipline. An individual so armed is impervious to not only the seductive distractiveness of the Net, they also become impervious to these techno-centric arguments which ironically may be short-circuiting necessary System 2 thinking with an overly emotional and threat-based appeal to the potential destructiveness of the “menacing other” some of us call the Net. It is not the Net have to fear. It is us. To find the source of the ill that Carr points out we have to look no further than the mirror.

Technology doesn’t make us dumber. We do. If used properly, technology will make more of us a lot, lot smarter than ever before.


  3 Responses to “The Net is not making us dumber. We are.”

  1. Nicholas Carr gave (more) of his perspective on On Point with Tom Ashbrook this morning. Interesting interview. http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/06/digital-tech-and-your-brai

  2. […] We are. Kellen: The Net is not making us dumber. We are. Used properly, it makes us smarter; http://j.mp/bDTFXR (via @JoelFoner) […]

  3. avatar

    I think most of these questions go back to Gutenberg and may even pre-date the printing press.

    Dictators (political, religous, other) feel a need to control (silence) dissidents.

    The traditional solutions:
    – Dictators kill or exile the dissidents, if they can.
    – Dissidents kill or exile the dictators, if they can.
    The more modern solution:
    – A democracy needs to assure freedom of information.
    Otherwise it will cease to be a democracy.
    This is well known.
    The question then becomes a design-question.
    How do you assure freedom of information with minimal side-effects.

    A design constraint: Only half the children will be above the median.

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