Question Center

Author, The Big Switch; The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Steven Pinker is too quick to dismiss people's concerns over the Internet's influence on their intellectual lives. He asserts that digital media "are the only things that will keep us smart." But the evidence he offers to support the claim consists largely of opinions and anecdotes, plus one Woody Allen joke.

On neuroplasticity, Pinker expresses the skepticism characteristic of evolutionary psychology advocates. When faced with suggestions that "experience can change the brain," he writes, "cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes." But is his opinion really shared so universally? In the reports on the Net's cognitive effects published in the Times last week, scholars like Russell Poldrack, Clifford Nass, Nora Volkow, and Adam Gazzaley offered views that conflict with Pinker's. He may disagree with these views, but to pretend they don't exist is misleading.

In considering "intelligence," Pinker paints with too broad a brush. He writes that "if electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting." Intelligence takes many forms. Electronic media may enhance some aspects of intelligence (the ability to spot patterns, for example, or to collaborate at a distance) while at the same time eroding others (the ability to reflect on our experiences, say, or to express ourselves in subtle language). Intelligence can't be gauged by a single measure.

Pinker notes that IQ scores rose during the decades of TVs and transistor radios. But that rise, which began in the early 1900s, is largely attributable to gains in visual acuity and abstract problem-solving. Measures of other components of intelligence, including verbal skill, vocabulary, basic arithmetic, memorization, critical reading, and general knowledge, have been stagnant or declining.

Pinker argues that "the effects of experience are highly specific to the experiences themselves." But that's why some of us are deeply concerned about society's ever-increasing devotion to the Net and related media. Given that the average American now spends 8.5 hours a day peering at screens, it seems likely that we're narrowing the scope of our intellectual experiences. We're training ourselves, through repetition, to be facile skimmers and message-processors — important skills, no doubt — but, perpetually distracted, we're not learning the quieter, more attentive modes of thought: contemplation, reflection, introspection, deep reading. 

Pinker is right that "genuine multitasking" is a myth. But that's why many experts on multitasking are concerned about its increasing prevalence. People may think, as they juggle emails, texts, tweets, and glances at websites, that they're adeptly doing a lot of stuff at once, but actually they're switching constantly between different tasks, and suffering the accompanying cognitive costs. The fact that people who fiddle with cell phones drive poorly shouldn't make us less concerned about the cognitive effects of media distractions; it should make us more concerned.

We should celebrate the benefits that the Net and related media have brought us. I've enjoyed those benefits myself over the last two decades. But we shouldn't be complacent when it comes to the Net's ill effects. As Patricia Greenfield, the UCLA developmental psychologist, wrote in a Science article last year, research suggests that our growing use of screen-based media is weakening our "higher-order cognitive processes," including "abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination."

Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back

The main value in Pinker's statement is the implied notion that media technologies cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. Taken alone, neither a Twitter account nor a Facebook profile will diminish one's capacity to think or interact.

But nothing ever happens alone. These media are arising in contexts of business, economics, and other social factors. No one — or at least no one smart — is saying that PowerPoint reduces discourse to bullet points. What they are saying is that combined with the bias of the workplace for tangible metrics and easy slogans over long-term planning and complex solutions, the bias PowerPoint toward bullet points can exacerbate the worst existing tendencies in business. It turns out that PowerPoint is not the best tool for every purpose.

So while it would be incorrect to blame PowerPoint for the collapse of competency in America, or the continuing fall of corporate profits over assets, a re-evaluation of the program's universal application in all contexts is overdue.

Likewise, Facebook — as a way for college kids to meet and greet one another — was a terrific program. As a mirror through which young people forge an identity, however, the program is lacking the nuance of real life. Facebook — more than a program to be feared for its code — is a business plan to be feared for its ubiquity. The object of Facebook is to monetize social interactions. This is the bias of the program, and a bias of which most people are painfully unaware.

Meanwhile, the positive effects of new media — such as their destabilization of centralized currencies and challenge to the forced monopolization of value creation — will remain unrecognized until we move beyond our artificially polarized reaction to the tools, and engage in a more qualitative study of their influences in different circumstances.

The real power of our computers and networks to expand human capacity, promote a global consciousness, and catalyze the evolution of our species will only be realized if we rise above this endless tit-for-tat between "pro" and "anti" technology camps, and instead begin to reckon with the very real biases of these media, as well as how they amplify or diminishes the biases of the systems in which they are operating.

Commentator on Internet and politics "Net Effect" blog; Contributing editor, Foreign Policy

Unless I misread the zeitgeist, Steven Pinker's "Mind Over Mass Media"appears to be a rebuttal of Nicholas Carr's two-pronged lament about the Internet, namely that (1) "the logic of the Internet" dictates that it becomes an "engine of distraction", what with all those links, clicks and pop-ups (2) as the Internet plays an increasingly prominent role in our public life, such distraction will inevitably undermine its intellectual foundations (e.g. we won't finish all those lengthy Russian and French novels nor would we have the time to reflect, assess, and ponder). There are many things that I find problematic in Carr's thesis; Pinker's rebuttal fails to address most of them and exhibits quite a few problems of its own.

First, a brief note on Carr's overarching argument. Carr's mission is doomed, for he is essentially attempting to prove that poetry still matters through a series of complex mathematical equations. Clearly, that won't do. For once, I also happen to believe that "poetry still matters" and that it might be coming under attack from the Internet. However, the way to demonstrate this is not by embracing the science of looking inward — i.e. studying the subtle changes in the wiring of our brains — but by embracing the science of looking outward — i.e. analyzing the impact that the Internet has on the flow and the quality of ideas.

In other words, Carr needs to ditch neuroscience and embrace sociology, for one can't write an effective defense of humanism in the ink of amino acid glutamate. The intellectual limitations of Carr's project become apparent the moment one moves from the descriptive to the prescriptive: short of establishing the "dictatorship of the neurons", we can't legislate with a view of optimizing the well-being our brains alone — the public usually has many more priorities and needs.

Had Carr looked beyond the neuroscience, he may have found that many of the problems that he blames on the Internet — constant busyness, shrinking attention spans, less and less time for concentration and contemplation — are rooted in the nature of working and living under modern capitalism rather than in information technology or gadgetry per se. In fact, as Pinker correctly points outs, Carr's are very old complaints.

Exhibit A: back in 1881 the prominent New York City physician George Beard published "American Nervousness", a book about the sudden epidemic of "nervousness" sweeping America, which he blamed, in part on the telegraph and the daily newspaper (the book later proved a great influence on Freud).

Exhibit B: in 1891, almost 120 years before The Atlantic published Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", the same magazine ran "Journalism and Literature", an essay by the polymath William Stillman, where he attacked the cultural change enabled by the telegraph-enabled journalism much in the same vein that Carr attacks the Internet. Stillman complained that "we develop hurry into a deliberate system, skimming of surfaces into a science, the pursuit of novelties and sensations into the normal business of our lives".

The Internet may be amplifying each of these problems, but it surely did not cause them. When the famed sociologist Manuel Castells speaks of the "black holes of information capitalism", there is as much emphasis on "capitalism" as there is on "information".

Now, onto Pinker's rebuttal. Pinker, I fear, falls into the same conceptual trap as Carr, i.e. he sets to measure the Internet against the printing press, the comic book, and television. However, by viewing the Internet as just another medium, both Carr and Pinker end up significantly downplaying its importance.

But the Internet is not just another medium. Rather, it's a full-blown brand-new dimension to human affairs — and it is poised to profoundly affect all other dimensions. The proper analogy, thus, is not to the newspaper or the telegraph, but to religion and nationalism. However, just like one could not assess the overall impact of religion by looking at the rates of dissemination of religious literature, one cannot assess the impact of the Internet by looking at such a narrow slice of its impact as the consumption of information by its users (and Carr makes that slice even thinner by assuming that the Internet has a "logic" that is not malleable by the social, cultural, and economic environments in which it operates — an assumption I find rather dubious). Just like with religion or nationalism, there is absolutely no guarantee that the vector of social change unleashed by the Internet would be either positive or negative; most certainly, it will be both — so the sooner we find a way to diagnose and minimize its negative effects, the better.

As such, determining whether the Internet strengthens or erodes the intellectual foundations of our culture cannot just be inferred by studying what happens to the brains of its users. Instead, one needs to embark on a much broader (and certainly more painful) structural analysis that would also examine what the Internet does to the production of different kinds of information (will book reviews still be published in 2020?), how it changes the depth and the quality of of access to information (how many more people will have access to how many more resources by 2020?) and so forth. The exclusive focus on how humans consume electronic media blinds Carr to some of the positive aspects of change induced by the Internet — surely, there is more to Google Books' growing role in intellectual production than just inducing a culture of shallow skimming? — while also blinding Pinker to its numerous negative aspects.

Both Carr and Pinker are too extreme in their portrayal of potential human responses to technology. Carr, the skeptic, follows in the steps of Jacques Ellul and paints the modern human as a pathetically impotent creature, completely enthralled by technology and unable to resist its allure. Pinker, the optimist, presents us with the opposite image: for him, the human is in ultimate control, able to turn off the pesky email whenever it gets too distracting.

I find such glorification of human agency — Pinker's belief in our ability to "develop strategies of self-control" — quite disturbing, even more so when it comes from such a distinguished student of human nature as Pinker. Surely, self-control would be a great strategy to fight many other ills of human civilization, from obesity to pollution — only that it almost never works as advertised.

Fortunately, most societies no longer entertain such illusions and there are more and more subtle and effective ways in which we, the consumers, can be saved from ourselves. Perhaps, some form of soft paternalism — for example, finding a way to display the "calorie intake" of the information we consume somewhere in our browsers — might be in order. That consumers won't win this fight is made obvious by the fact that we are up against powerful corporate interests.

The political economy of today's Internet is such that Google, Facebook, and Twitter, having found a way to commodify and capitalize on our distractions, are the ones who stand to benefit the most. No wonder our information diet is so unhealthy: it's our eyeballs, not our minds, that are of primary interest to Internet companies. It's not exactly an environment conducive to practicing self-control. For all his insights into the human psyche, Pinker seems to have missed the real "invisible gorillas" of today's Internet; a hint: they all have headquarters in the Bay Area. Carr might be wrong to focus on neuroscience but some insights from psychiatry (not to mention the legal theory of consumer protection) would be much appreciated.

However, one doesn't need to subscribe to any such conspiracy theories to notice that the Internet has triggered many disturbing socio-economic processes that may not be particularly favorable to the production of new and iconoclast ideas. Take Pinker's argument that accomplished people become accomplished by immersing themselves in their fields — "novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science". On first sight, Pinker seems right — but absolutely nothing about today's culture suggests that such "laws" would still be applicable a decade from now.

For example, I'm less optimistic about the future of free-roaming novelists (or, for that matter, any other kind of literary intellectuals who are unaffiliated with academic institutions) than Pinker. It's quite possible that in just a few years "lots of novelists" won't be reading "lots of novels" because (a) fewer readers would be eager to pay big bucks for their novels, making it quite hard to finance novelists' life-supporting advances; (b) freelancing opportunities would shrink or become even worse paid, as some magazines and newspapers shut down and others shift to repackaging free content they find online; (c) novelists, forced to prostitute themselves on Twitter, Facebook, and FourSquare in order to secure a deal or make a sale, simply wouldn't have much time for reading.

Similarly, Pinker is correct in saying that "special knowledge must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities" — but one of the implications of the digital revolution might be that universities would also end up being the only places where new ideas could be produced. It works well for scientists like Pinker but I am not sure that every non-academic intellectual would be thrilled to be faced with such a choice.

All in all, the debate between Carr and Pinker confirms my long-running suspicion that one can't grapple with the macro-level social implications of the Internet by operating on the micro-level of neuroscience or psychology. These disciplines do provide useful insights — but we need a brand-new Internet-centric social science to make sense of them.

Back to "Mind Over Mass Media" By Steven Pinker

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

Alexandra Zukerman, Assistant Editor
contact: [email protected]
Copyright © 2010 By Edge Foundation, Inc
All Rights Reserved.