alison_gopnik's picture
Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Gardener and the Carpenter

My thinking has certainly been transformed in alarming ways by a relatively recent information technology, but it's not the Internet. I often sit for hours in the grip of this compelling medium, motionless and oblivious, instead of interacting with the people around me. As I walk through the streets I compulsively check out even trivial messages — movie ads, street signs — and I pay more attention to descriptions of the world — museum captions, menus — than to the world itself. I've become incapable of using attention and memory in ways that previous generations took for granted. Yes, I know reading has given me a powerful new source of information. But is it worth the isolation, the damage to dialog and memorization that Socrates foresaw? Studies show, in fact, that I've become involuntarily compelled to read, I literally can't keep myself from decoding letters. Reading has even reshaped my brain, cortical areas that once were devoted to vision and speech have been hijacked by print. Instead of learning through practice and apprenticeship, I've become dependent on lectures and textbooks. And look at the toll of dyslexia and attention disorders and learning disabilities, all signs that our brains were just not designed to deal with such a profoundly unnatural technology.

Like many others I feel that the Internet has made my experience more fragmented, splintered and discontinuous. But I'd argue that's not because of the Internet itself but because I have mastered the Internet as an adult. Why don't we feel the same way about reading and schooling that we feel about the Web? These changes in the way we get information have had a pervasive and transformative effect on human cognition and thought, and universal literacy and education have only been around for a hundred years or so.

It's because human change takes place across generations, rather than within a single life. This is built into the very nature of the developing mind and brain. All the authors of these essays have learned how to use the Web with brains that were fully developed long before we sent our first e-mail. All of us learned to read with the open and flexible brains we had when we were children. As a result no-one living now will experience the digital world in the spontaneous and unselfconscious way that the children of 2010 will experience it, or in the spontaneous and unselfconscious way we experience print.

There is a profound difference between the way children and adults learn. Young brains are capable of much more extensive change — more rewiring — than the brains of adults. This difference between old brains and young ones is the engine of technological and cultural innovation. Human adults, more than any other animal, reshape the world around them. But adults innovate slowly, intentionally, and consciously. The changes that take place within an adult life, like the development of the Internet, are disruptive, attention-getting, disturbing or exciting. But those changes become second nature to the next generation of children. Those young brains painlessly absorb the world their parents created, and that world takes on a glow of timelessness and eternity, even if it was only created the day before you were born.

My experience of the Web, feels fragmented, discontinuous, effortful (and interesting!) because, for adults, learning a new technology depends on conscious, attentive, intentional processing. In adults, this kind of conscious attention is a very limited resource. This is even true at the neural level. When we pay attention to something, the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for conscious goal-directed planning, controls the release of cholinergic transmitters, chemicals that help us learn, to certain very specific parts of the brain. So as we wrestle with a new technology we adults can only change our minds a little bit at a time.

Attention and learning work very differently in young brains. Young animals have much more wide-spread cholinergic transmitters than adults and their ability to learn doesn't depend on planned, deliberate attention. Young brains are designed to learn from everything new, or surprising or information-rich, even when it isn't particularly relevant or useful.

So children who grow up with the Web will master it in a way that will feel as whole and natural as reading feels to us. But that doesn't mean that their experience and attention won't be changed by the Internet, anymore than my print-soaked twentieth century life was the same as the life of a barely literate 19th century farmer.

The special attentional strategies that we require for literacy and schooling may feel natural since they are so pervasive, and since we learned them at such an early age. But at different times and places, different ways of deploying attention have been equally valuable and felt equally natural. Children in Mayan Indian cultures, for example, are taught to distribute their attention to several events simultaneously, just as print and school teach us to focus on just one thing at a time. I'll never be able to deploy the broad yet vigilant attention of a hunter-gatherer, though, luckily, a childhood full of practice caregiving let me master the equally ancient art of attending to work and babies at the same time.

Perhaps our digital grandchildren will view a master reader with the same nostalgic awe that we now accord to a master hunter or an even more masterly mother of six. The skills of the hyper-literate 20th century may well disappear, or at least become highly specialized enthusiasms, like the once universal skills of hunting, poetry and dance. It is sad that after the intimacy of infancy our children inevitably end up being somewhat weird and incomprehensible visitors from the technological future. But the hopeful thought is that my grand-children will not have the fragmented, distracted, alienated digital experience that I do. For them the Internet will feel as fundamental, as rooted, as timeless, as a battered Penguin paperback, that apex of the literate civilization of the last century, feels for me.