Clouding the brain

Ties van de Werff
August 5th 2010

Man is a flexible species. We tend to adapt quite rapidly to new environments. But how fast can these adaptations turn to new evolutionary traits? For instance: to what extent is the internet changing our cognitive capabilities?

Back in the day, the story goes, we could remember whole bible stories. We could even sing entire newspapers. Because there weren’t any, we had to remember it all. That changed with the invention of book printing. Remembering became less important and instead, as philosopher Walter Ong claimed, our brains could focus more on comparing and analyzing. So our analytical skills grew.

According to several theorists, the same is happening now with the omnipresent reality of the cloud that internet has become. Some fRMI-studies suggest that our brains change due to the extensive use of internet and other digital technologies. Since Google – and in the near future, semantic search engines such as Wolfram/Alpha – renders our questions and prioritizes the possible answers, we don’t have to force our analytical skills. What’s more, we can find answers to problems in a split second. Digital natives, those born in the internet-era, have difficulties to concentrate for longer periods of time, as experiments with MIT-students show (smart phones and the default mode of always being connected with the cloud, even leads to new diseases such as vibranxiety or phantom vibration syndrome). Authors such as Nick Carr and Douglas Rushkoff thus fear that internet kills our intellectual life.

Apparently, the internet doesn’t require from our brains to sit back, read a book and get lost in thoughts for hours in a row. However, some studies suggest that the brain functions of the internet savy are actually increasing. Our digital environment does give us tools for being creative. Instead of passively watching television, like we did in the 20th century, we now spend our free time expressing ourselves on the internet as proam photographers, journalists, musicians, or writers. Accessible to all, and on a scale we could never imagine. Media theorist Clay Shirky hails this cognitive surplus and claims the internet stimulates our collective creativity.

Nature changes along with us. But to what extent does the nature of man change too? Have we reached the long awaited Library of Alexandria? Or rather a kind of collective consciousness? Or is the cloud making us dumber by the day? Read both sides of the argument in a debate between Clay Shirky vs Nick Carr in de Wall Street Journal.

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Ties
Posted 09/08/2010 – 12:24

Thanks Arnoud! Another interesting perspective (which I didn't mention here), is that some believe our analytical skills will be exchanged for a focus on visual perception and visual language. Quite interesting if you look at our emerging visual culture. A Dutch proponent of this idea is Jos de Mul.

Arnoud van den Heuvel
Posted 08/08/2010 – 16:42

Thanks Ties van de Werff, a very good article and I recommend everyone interested in the subject to read both the linked articles (without distraction).

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