Do We Think Differently Than We Did Before?

When I first read Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker (2/14 & 26/11), essay “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” I was put off by its cuteness. But he was asking an important question—What are the cognitive and personal effects of the Internet?—so I thought I’d read it again. On review, I realize it is, in its own Gopnikian way, a really fine discussion of the topic.

He approaches the question by reviewing six recent books, each representing one of three general answers to the question. Clay Shirkey’s Cognitive Surplus and John Tooby’s essay in John Brockman’s anthology Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? are discussed first. He calls their position “Never-Betterism.” The Never-Betters argue that the electronic age has given birth to a new expansion of our minds and means of transmitting information.

The Never Betters also have their proponents in Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind and Robert Logan’s The Sixth Language that draw their evidence primarily from psychological theory. Gopnik puts their argument this way. “Contraptions don’t change consciousness; contraptions are part of consciousness. We may not act better than we used to, but we sure think differently than we did before.”

Then there are the “Better-Nevers” who hold that the price we pay for the Internet isn’t worth what it costs. According to those in this camp, what it costs is a continual state of dissociation and fragmentation of thinking. Writers who hold this position include Nicholas Carr in his The Shallows, William Powers in Hamlet’s BlackBerry and most recently Sherry Turkle in Alone Together. Gopnik describes their view this way:

“The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private spaces for minds in ways that twenty second bursts of information don’t.”

Finally, there are the “Ever-Wasers” who argue really there’s nothing remarkable going on now, that there has always been some new method of presenting information that is exciting for some and ominous for others. Gopnik points to Ann Blair’s book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age to illustrate this position.

Blair suggests that information overload was already being felt before the invention of the Gutenberg press. People then were complaining about how it would ruin our minds and that all the new books being printed were disrupting a person’s ability to concentrate. And then, in a telling passage for anyone interested in the history of commonplace books, Gopnik cites Blair’s claim,

“During the later Middle Ages a staggering growth in the production of manuscripts facilitated by the use of paper accompanied a great expansion of readers outside the monastic and scholastic context.” Activities that seem quite twenty-first century she shows, begin when people cut and pasted from one manuscript to another; made aggregated news in compendiums…

In my view each of these three positions goes well beyond the data. Each makes blanket statements about the effects of whatever new age is being discussed. Each fails to take account of the wide variation among individuals in how they respond to any new technology.

As for the “Never-Betters,” speaking for myself, I find the Net a miracle, an amazing new research tool, and an infinite, easily accessible source of scholarly information. For me, turning on my computer in the morning is like opening the door to a vast library where I can spend all day. Of course, I wasn’t raised on the Internet, so I am not much help when it comes to predicting its future effects.

What the “Better-Nevers” claims lack is data, empirical evidence testing the claims they make concerning the way the Internet breaks down our capacity for reflective thought and concentrated deliberation. And they speak only of the purported changes to our mental apparatus, rather than its output. Are essays and books and scholarly papers any less intelligent today than they were in pre-Internet days? We need verifiable observations to answer questions like this, not a cascade of intuitions, speculations and hunches.

Concerning the “Ever-Wasers,” it is clear the historical record lends credence to their claims. However, to say the harmful effects of the Internet are not unlike what is always being said about a new technology (for example, the printing press or television) has no direct implications about the impact of the digital revolution. Perhaps the electronic revolution is a totally different beast that will transform the human brain in ways we have never seen before.

Gopnik concludes his essay with these wise words: “Thoughts are bigger than the things that deliver them. Our contraptions may shape our consciousness, but it is our consciousness that makes our credos.”