Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Are we in the shallows? Yes, we are. We've left the beach and we are now about up to our knees in the shallows. Eventually will get out over the continental shelf, and finally into the deep ocean.

Every major change leads to the prediction of disaster.

Homo erectus was using fire 1.5 million years ago. He probably didn't know how to make it, depending on natural fires, such as occurred during lightning storms, to start a campfire. H. erectus or H. ergaster began to make their own fires around 700,000 years ago. I can hear the complaints, "Ook ack eek uk! Hoo hoo uk eek!" ("Made fire not natural! Bad things happen!")

I have read reports that there was a great fear that the newfangled habit of writing things down in books would cause people to lose the essential ability to remember long, but important, passages of great works of literature, like Homer. Apparently these complaints were made at the time that writing became popular in ancient Greece, and then were repeated with the advent of the printing press.

When paperback books became available, according to an article in the New York Times Book Review, many feared these cheap volumes would ruin great literature. They would make lowbrow, low-quality, lurid tales cheap and easy to acquire. Who, then, would waste time and money on expensive, carefully bound books?

When calculators first appeared, I recall the panic it created among my fellow teachers. Children would no longer learn the times tables. Engineers would no longer know if the numbers which came out of the calculator were even close to correct, because they would have lost the ability to estimate! Calculators had to be stopped before they caused terrible damage to our ability to do math.

It's not limited just to writing, either. From Smithsonian Magazine -- As reported in the New York Times, an 1896 column in the London Spectator mourned the impact of the bicycle on British society: “The phase of the wheel’s influence that strike …most forcibly is, to put it briefly, the abolition of dinner and the advent of lunch….If people can pedal away ten miles or so in the middle of the day to a lunch for which they need no dress, where the talk is haphazard, varied, light, and only too easy; and then glide back in the cool of the afternoon to dine quietly and get early to bed…conversation of the more serious type will tend to go out.” --

No dress? I'm guessing that language has changed a bit and he meant, no fancy dress. Otherwise, picnics were more interesting back then.

In the book, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, a Mormon preacher rages against the addition of zippers into men's pants. He fears this will make it too easy for a man to yield to temptation. You can guess what temptation. You see, with buttons you had to take some time to, well, get unbuttoned. This was time to reconsider your carnal desires. But with a zipper... almost instant gratification! Okay, so it's an excerpt from a piece of fiction. Still, I can almost imagine it actually having happened, and it's just too good a story not to repeat.

And now it's computers. Oh, the horrors! We will lose the essential skill of memory, wait, didn't we already lose that -- twice? We will be so swamped with data that we won't know what is good and reliable from what is ridiculous and false. Vital skills will atrophy never to be regained by our species. We are lost in (insert scary music ) the shallows!

In one of my collections of old science fiction stories, the ones I grew up with, there is a story that sheds a lot of light on this. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of it. I have looked for it and I can't find it either. So if anyone happens to read this and remembers said story, please send me a comment with the name of the author and the piece.

A bright young alien race goes out exploring the universe in ships which can traverse space and time at faster than light speeds. (As you've noticed, it's one of those the future will be just like the colonial past stories.) Everywhere they look they discover evidence of a once great empire which stretched across the galaxy. But all the cities are abandoned and there's no trace of the former inhabitants. Eventually they locate them on the planet which the inhabitants call Earth.

The humans, as they named themselves, have lost interest in great explorations and their empire. Only a few million of them are left scattered across the planet, living simple lives in brightly colored domes. They welcome the newcomers and make it clear to them that they can have that old empire, we don't want it anymore.

The aliens are sad to see the human race now so degraded when it was once so great. Still, they're really happy to take over the empire. They ask the humans about the ancient technology that allowed them to conquer the galaxy. The humans are very happy to share it with them, only it turns out that no one can actually remember how to use any of those old machines, much less recall how they were ever built.

Again, with great sadness for the degradation of this once great species, the aliens let them know that not only will they take over the abandoned Empire, they will also to take over Earth. They will be very nice about it. A really pleasant reservation will be set aside for the poor degenerate race, so the humans can get together and be happy.

The kindly old Earth man with whom they have been speaking is a bit upset about this. He says that he just can't let that happen. And the aliens suddenly find themselves back in their spaceships, being transported across the galaxy at far greater speeds than they could ever manage. They arrive back at their own home planet just a few hours after they left. So they also went back in time, as well as in space.

One of the officers expresses his confusion, saying that the Earthmen men were so degraded, they didn't remember any of their essential skills. There was no way they could have done this. The Captain asks him to light a fire. The officer takes out his lighter, "No," says the Captain, "with some rocks and sticks."

So it seems that, while the humans had lost knowledge that was once absolutely essential to survival, they lost that knowledge because they didn't need it anymore. New skills were required to handle new kinds of knowledge and so were new methods of manipulating that knowledge. Old obsolete skills were replaced by new, more effective ones.

Barring the collapse of civilization, we are unlikely to need those skills, unless we are appearing on the series, Naked and Afraid.

The simple fact is, we have lost a lot of skills because we don't need them anymore. We will learn new skills in school and in our daily lives, skills which will include how to assess which data we can rely upon and which we cannot.

My prediction? Nicholas Carr will be remembered as another one of those silly people who were so afraid of change. 50 years from now we will be laughing about his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

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