Today’s ‘Planet Earth Report: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Digital Devices are Messing with Our Brains

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial “ brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

Ten years ago technology writer Nicholas Carr published an article in summer of 2008 in The Atlantic entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr, who opened his essay with the quote above, strongly suspected the answer was “yes,” writes Elena Pasquinelli an associate of the Jean Nicod Institute, a cognitive science laboratory in Paris, in Scientific American.

Himself less and less able to focus, remember things or absorb more than a few pages of text, Carr accused the Internet of radically changing people’s brains. And that is just one of the grievances leveled against the Internet and at the various devices we use to access it–including cell phones, tablets, game consoles and laptops. Often the complaints target video games that involve fighting or war, arguing that they cause players to become violent.

 

 

“I’m haunted by that scene in 2001,” Carr concludes. “What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

But digital devices also have fervent defenders—in particular the promoters of brain-training games, who claim that their offerings can help improve attention, memory and reflexes. Who, if anyone, is right? asks Pasquinelli.

The answer is less straightforward than you might think, Pasquinelli continues. Take Carr’s accusation. As evidence, he quoted findings of neuroscientists who showed that the brain is more plastic than previously understood. In other words, it has the ability to reprogram itself over time, which could account for the Internet’s effect on it. Yet in a 2010 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, psychologists Christopher Chabris, then at Union College, and Daniel J. Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rebutted Carr’s view: “There is simply no experimental evidence to show that living with new technologies fundamentally changes brain organization in a way that affects one’s ability to focus,” they wrote. And the debate goes on.

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Here’s Carr’s provocative and prophetic essay as it appeared in The Atlantic in 2008 

Image credit: Internet of Things, top of page, with thanks to Pymnts.com 

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