Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Internet altering your mind: a response

Posted in philosophy by Bas Reus on September 30, 2010

Some weeks ago, a friend pointed me to an article in The Guardian: “How the internet is altering your mind“. How interesting this article is, it does not tell how the internet is altering your mind. Only that it’s kind of rewired. Of course all experiences and new situations alter your mind. The article addresses an issue with the book The Shallows (Nicolas Carr), which claims that the amount of time we spend on the internet is changing the very structure of our brains – damaging our ability to think and to learn. And does it matter? Every moment your brain changes, your subjective history is in the making constantly.

I believe this statement of Carr is just a generalization of the human kind. We don’t become more shallow, we just are already. At least, the majority of us, depending on the definition and context you prefer to use. Arthur Schopenhauer would argue that most humans are so dependent on how they are perceived by the outside world, and on what they possess, they can not quite live with themselves on their own. They need stimulus from outside. Free time is a struggle for them, and they get bored easily. That could be an important consideration. When you are part of the network, so many stimulus can come near you from outside, you are distracted by them constantly. If you allow them to come that near. In boredom, you would allow them more than when you don’t feel emptiness, when you are thinking about new ideas or being creative. Boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence, argues Schopenhauer, you feel you need to kill time.

So the internet is able to fight your boredom, if you are connected and so bored with what you do at the moment. Exactly what the Carr predicts ironically in his book, that you probably won’t read it to the end. His book is too boring for the majority of the people, only some can make it to the end. Too many other stimulus occur in between. Carr argues that all these cry-outs for attention makes us addictive for new possible interesting activity. Checking e-mail, Facebook and Twitter compulsively makes our attention span short, and that’s a bad thing. According to Carr. To me, this is just an expression of social human behavior. We have to learn how to spend the available time so it won’t feel stressful.

Schopenhauer argues that social behavior is for not intelligent people. It’s something for animals that have a consciousness, that separates them from lower organisms. What intelligent people, or even geniuses (his terminology) separate from animals is the ability to be independent of others, they can have a great time with their mind alone. They don’t need social behavior, it even gets in their way. Luckily the great majority of the people are not geniuses, but creatures that show social behavior. And the internet is an environment where social behavior can be performed.

The internet is still in its early stages, so I think people are still using it not very efficient. In that Carr is right, attention is being spread on too many events, which makes it quite shallow. However I believe the internet will evolve to an environment that is not shallow, but allows are social behavior to flourish, at every moment of the day. It will be more integrated with the current ‘offline’ life. And human behavior won’t change that fast, technology does. Start reading a book on philosophy on the internet or on an iPad for a start, how shallow would that be?