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The Internet is turning you into a High-Tech Lab Rat



Image via flickr - ernest figueras

Time to Fight Back!

For years now I’ve been reading, irregularly but inevitably, alarmed discussions about how the Internet is ruining our brains.  From the popular press to scholarly journals, from candid interviews with Eric Schmidt  to mass-market books like Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows,” I keep hearing that the Internet, for all its many virtues, is making us stupid and shallow.  As a general contrarian who’s spent 30 productive years on the Internet, my first instinct is to disagree; the benefits of the net are so overwhelming that the few drawbacks are hardly worth discussing, right?

Alas, what’s good for the economy isn’t always good for individuals.   Television was widely predicted to be the greatest educational tool the world would ever see.  But now we know that entertainment trounces education in the war for viewer eyeballs.  More recently, television viewing has proven to be anti-educational – the greater the percentage of news you get from television, the less you know.  Online information services have pushed us further in the wrong direction; conspiracy theorists can now get all their news from sites that share and mutually reinforce their paranoia.

But what pains me most is the possibility that the Internet degrades our ability to reason by making us consume knowledge in ever shorter and more shallow bites.  Paper magazines have been losing ground to streams of single articles, but even the latter are too complex for a world of 140 character tweets.

In 140 characters, you can occasionally capture a deep truth.  But you can never explain a complex reality.  Oops, there goes my 140 characters!

Is there any hope for reversing the trend?  Is there a way we can move back towards a more thoughtful and reflective mode of learning and communicating?

It might help to recognize that this didn’t start with the Internet.  Technology has been speeding us up for a long time, from the invention of the spinning jenny, through electricity and typewriters to today’s Internet.  Economics constantly push us towards more efficiency, and one of the best ways to do that is to speed up everything we do that has economic value.  Speeding us up was one of the Internet’s purposes, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it cuts into our time for serious reflection and contemplation.

Manage your email – don’t let it manage you!

The fact is, we’re bucking a much bigger and more powerful trend than the Internet alone, and it’s probably best to have modest expectations.  But perhaps we can identify a few ways to fight back against the ever-accelerating pace of our world’s ever-more-efficient economics.  Mr Carr describes our obsessive checking of email as having “turned us into hi-tech lab rats, mindlessly pressing levers in the hope of receiving a pellet of social or intellectual nourishment.”  That describes me all too accurately, but I’ve fought back by putting a form of “slow glass” into my email stream.   All but my highest-priority email goes into a holding area where I won’t see it until morning.  Once a day, I see all that stuff, but the rest of the time, only the (relatively) important messages can interrupt me.

Similarly, you could slow down the pace of your most rapid-fire conversations by having your outgoing messages automatically delayed for several hours.  This isn’t an easy thing to do in most email tools today, but it could be soon; in 2007, the IETF approved a standards-track specification for requesting future delivery of email, and now we’re  just waiting for the vendors to implement it.

These are small, partial answers to big problems.  But if the big trends are generally unstoppable, our best bet is to find small solutions to the worst of the negative consequences.  If we’re going to salvage any part of our ability to be thoughtful and reflective, we need to find more such tricks to protect ourselves from the great flood of shallow information.  Alas, the Internet really does seem to want to turn us into a planet of simple-minded lab rats.  But we don’t have to give in without a fight.