Google Stoopid #change11

In his Week 15 overview, Howard Rheingold warns that we should not believe internet skeptics, such as Nicholas Carr, “before empirical evidence corroborates them.” Having just finished Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, I would invite everyone to check out “Chapter 7: The Juggler’s Brain,” which is filled with solid, empirical evidence (though no scientific consensus yet exists) of the negative effects the internet has on cognition.

For instance, Carr reports on UCLA developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield, who reviewed fifty studies on media’s effects on intelligence and learning, publishing her results in Science. Greenfield claims we have traded improvements in visual-spatial skills for weaker capacities in “the kind of deep processing that underpins mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

One of Carr’s major arguments is that internet usage is re-wiring our brains in ways that make us better at using the internet, but worse at deeper, reflective thinking. He cites a 2009 Stanford study that compares heavy media multitaskers with relatively light multitaskers. The results found that heavy multitaskers were ” much more easily distracted,” “had less control over the contents of their working memory,” and were “less able to maintain their concentration.” While infrequent multitaskers “exhibited relatively strong top-down attentional control,” heavy users were, according to Stanford professor Clifford Nass, “suckers for irrelevancy.”

Carr also reports on multiple studies showing how reading comprehension suffers when readers must navigate through hyperlinks instead of reading in traditional, linear fashion. The neuroscience suggests that brain functions in support of deep reading must “shut off” when a reader considers whether or not to click on a link. As John Medina writes in Brain Rules, our brains functions best while performing one type of task at a time. The simple act of switching from deep reading to “link inspection mode” throws us off our game and wastes valuable brain energy. Multitaskers are always less efficient that monotaskers.

Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is frightening stuff. It suggests that we have made massive changes to how we read, learn, live, and think. And that we have done so in a short period of time without considering the consequences.

Leave a comment


  1. Thank you for this post. Over the break I read The Shallows and many of my “working with technology” perceptions and experiences were affirmed by Carr. Recently, I blogged about my frustrating experience (encountering resource upon resource, an enthusiastic do-this frame on the part of bloggers, many suggested tools) of setting up a PLE. It was a process akin to Carr’s description of himself as “a high-speed data-processing machine, a human HAL” (p. 16).

    I agree with your invitation to “check out Chapter 7” and I will add the following, the last paragraph of my blog post: Not every action has to be empirically based yet it seems that some way of learning in a less frustrating and time consuming way is necessary. Perhaps I’m asking for what Selwyn describes as “ a need for everyone working in the field to make clearer distinctions between the rhetoric and the reality of digital technology use in education…need to look beyond questions of how digital technology could be used—and perhaps should be used—and instead ask questions about how it is actually used in practice…a willingness to also consider what can be termed ‘state-of the actual’ questions…” (p. 54).

    Rheingold’s take is surprising. Perhaps we’ll have a chance to discuss it during his session on Wednesday.


  2. Hello Andrew, and thank you for this thoughtful post, which is helpful to me. As I noted, this is the first time I’ve made this presentation. Clearly, I need to be more precise in communicating this point, because my intention was not to refute Carr at all in regard to his contention that heavy use of social media can and does effect changes in the way people think and process information. I mentioned Carr and Turkle specifically because they have the best empirical support for their arguments and because their cautions are well worth considering. I mean to convey that it is not at all clear from the research that these changes are definitively detrimental, that “detrimental” is being judged by those authors in the context of 20th century literacy, and that we don’t really know whether conscious training can shape these effects in beneficial ways. In regard to Clifford Nass, I’ve discussed his research at length — his office is down the hall from mine. Two points about Nass’ research are worth keeping in mind: first, in his and other research on multitasking, a relatively small percentage of subjects (around 5 %) are indeed capable of multitasking without losing effectiveness on individual tasks. My question is whether the capability of that minority of subjects is due to innate differences or whether they have learned to do something that others could also learn. Second, if you look at the experiments, they are necessarily of the highly abstracted kind: can people track red and blue rectangles on a screen, for example, keeping track of whether the red rectangles had changed positions from the previous frame. What about keeping track of multiple streams of relevant information, all related to the same topic? Nass and I agree that we look forward to seeing the results of research into that question. Note that while media multitaskers are shown to pay a price in task effectiveness in Nass’ and others’ studies, they are also good at a kind of attention that those who are able to focus on single tasks more effectively appear to be less good at. You probably know the famous video about attention blindness/selective intelligence. If you want to check it out before I spoil it for you, here it is: The interesting point is that Janeele Seemller of the University of Utah demonstrated that high multitaskers were less likely to overlook the gorilla — a statistically significant correlation between multitasking frequency and situational awareness. Seegmiller, Watson & Strayer (2011) Individual differences in susceptibility to inattentional blindness. The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

    The point I intended to make but possibly articulated inaccurately: Further research will probably provide more definitive evidence, but until then, believing that use of digital media makes people stupid is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s akin to assuming that the use of autombiles is invariably fatal in a world where nobody is taught how to drive before they are let loose on the roads. To believe that people can train their attention, critical consumption, collaboration, participation, and network awareness skills has at least a chance of improving the situation.

  3. Andrew Neuendorf

     /  January 4, 2012

    Howard, thanks for your reply, and I see your point. Let’s not toss out the fish with legs just yet. Perhaps it’s making one big step. It could, however, just end up being a really poor swimmer with divided attention between land and water, and a sitting duck (to mix the metaphor) for predators. I guess time will tell.

    Carr uses McLuhan’s well known maxim “The medium is the message” (which, of course, McLuhan quickly changed to “The medium is the massage,” which I think it much better) in his book to suggest that it doesn’t matter HOW we use the internet and social media, since the medium itself will dictate the terms of our engagement. It only wants to be used a certain way, and is, in a sense, using us no matter what we do. I’m not entirely sold on his claim, but he makes a good point that e-reading desperately wants to pull us from the solitary experience with click-able words and whispernet and the like. Reading a printed book is not, and cannot, be the same experience as reading the same book on a screen. I guess the big question is can we find a way to balance deep reading with html-reading without compromising the benefits of the former.

    I don’t think it’s merely a game of semantics to affirm that certain changes in reading habits are in fact “detrimental,” especially when attentional skills are involved. Multitasking may have its benefits, but if it interferes with attention, it’s not a neutral trade-off. Attention cannot be considered to be just another skill. It’s much more foundational and integral to everything we do. The brain will perform more poorly if attention is compromised. If this is proven to be a drawback of 21st century literacy, we should start working on the 22nd century then.

    • I like “let’s not toss out the fish with legs just yet” and plan to appropriate it for my own use, because it’s one of the central points I’m trying to make.

      I agree that e-reading is different. I’m not so sure that I am less intelligent or less productive when my tools were a library card, a telephone, and a typewriter. I read fewer books — but I still get through a couple entire books each month — but I probably read a great many more words, not all of them garbage.

      I am attached to deep reading, but I see that my daughter, and my students seem to be pretty smart, capable, and well-informed, even though they don’t devour books by the dozen, the way I did when I was their age (and the Internet was not yet available).

      “Detrimental” is, of course, contextual. I don’t think anyone would argue that fighter pilots who have to navigate, aviate (in three dimensions), and communicate more or less simultaneously (okay, let’s call it rapid task-switching with dramatically lower switching costs, rather than multitasking), are less capable than others. Maybe the process of selecting fighter pilots selects for those who are capable of more multitasking than most. Maybe it’s the training.

      Does my brain behave poorly? I think that probably depends on which critic you want to pay attention to. 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: