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."
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.