In a message yesterday about Catholic Church communications, the Church’s hippest pope in decades weighed in on the virtues and shortcomings of the Internet. While Pope Francis was quick to point out that the Internet definitely has its downside, he was unambiguous in his praise for our second Gutenberg revolution: “…this is truly something good, a gift from God,” he wrote. You hear that, Al Gore? God.
Unlike a gift from Macy’s or Nordstrom, the Internet is clearly not one we can return if we don’t like it. And while we don’t want to appear ungrateful, anyone who’s surfed online for more than six months is acquainted with its shortcomings. Now that we’ve become online inhabitants, we’ve become lazy, voyeuristic, and vulnerable to identity theft.
Scientists found that active searching on the Internet stimulated “key centers in the brain” necessary for reasoning…
The upside is… well… just name it! We can shop, we can meet our next spouse, we can complete a college degree, we can learn to play the piano… it seems endless, doesn’t it? But serious critics of the Internet have been coming from a different direction — one that’s virtually neurological. In the title of his frequently-quoted piece from a 2008 issue of The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr posed the question “Is Google Making us Stupid?” In his ingenious answer to the question, he hearkens back to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. When astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) begins to disconnect the memory circuits in HAL, his space ship’s computer, HAL offers an eerie human-like response: “Dave… my mind is going… I can feel it, I can feel it.”
Carr, as an Internet captive, is quick to liken himself to Hal:
“I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.”
If Carr is right, then God offers his gifts the way he works his wonders — in mysterious ways. How are we to resist the Google forces that unravel our minds? It seems likely that we won’t be able to, and will just have to swim with the surf (so to speak). Certainly our writing and thinking has adapted to earlier technologies. The philosopher Nietzsche’s prose style changed under the influence of the typewriter, claims German media scholar Friedrich Kittler. It evolved “from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.” Those of us who remember writing letters need only compare our own letter-writing style with our email style, to appreciate Nietzsche’s accommodation of the typewriter late in life.
But Carr’s subjective take on the dangers of Google has been disputed with more scientific arguments. In the same year Carr published his essay, scientists found that active searching on the Internet stimulated “key centers in the brain” necessary for reasoning and the ability to make decisions. According to Gary Small at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior, “emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults….”
It remains to be seen whether Carr’s thesis, or the scientific findings at UCLA, will prevail as an explanation of what the Internet is doing to our brains. For now though, it would appear that Pope Francis and UCLA are on the same page — or bandwidth.