In his recent book “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains”, Nicholas Carr examines the cognitive and cultural effects the Internet is having on our brains. The irony is that, if his arguments prove to be correct, it is unlikely you will be able to complete reading the book anyway.
This set me thinking about how our reading habits have changed from days when we consumed news on a paper that left our fingers tainted black and books that could be used as doorstops. Think back to those days when your schoolbag used to weigh as much Ricky Januarie, laden with text books and Hardy Boys novels from the library. Now compare that to today’s “learners” that cut and paste Wikipedia posts and only need to download the latest iPhone app to reveal stolen answers to this year’s matric exams. Even teenage love letters have now been replaced by short bursts of MXit “sexting”.
I would best describe my attention span is “ADD”. But thinking back, it didn’t always used to be this way.
I used to believe that the decline in my concentration skills could be traced back to my third year tax lecturer’s monotonic attempts at a natural cure for insomnia. But now, as I gaze at my browser with its three open tabs, email notifications pinging mercilessly for attention in the background and my BBM light flashing red yet again, I realise Nicholas Carr may just have a point.
Reading a book in bed has been replaced with checking Dow Jones live prices on my Bloomberg app or checking the latest Protea score online (very good when they’re winning). In fact, I need to make a concentrated effort just to read a book nowadays – and it generally occurs only when I’m overseas where roaming data rates can tear you a new, ahem, hole in your wallet.
Alas, my once sponge-like memory that could recite the entire length of “Caddyshack” and “The Three Amigos” or recall a girl’s cellphone number from the drunken haze of the night before is no more. I have gone from being first choice at 30 Seconds and Trivial Pursuit to relying on games of Twister to display my boardgame prowess.
And I blame it all on this Internet devil.
Part of the problem is easiest explained if you can imagine that your brain’s memory is broken into two parts, short-term and long-term. The short-term (RAM) memory stores all the stuff that needs to be kept handy for use in the, well, short-term. For example, what time the next Bafana game kicks off. The long-term (Hard Drive) memory stores the stuff we don’t usually need as often or in the near term. Like the wife’s birthday or that Luca Pacioli invented the double entry accounting system in 1494.
We now find ourselves in a situation where the sheer volume of data required to be processed by our RAM has increased tenfold. This, coupled with the lack of opportunity to focus our attention on a single task for a lengthy period of time, means it’s hardly rocket science to conclude that the way we now consume information can affect our ability to process and recall information.
By now, most of The Daily Maverick’s readers are familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory, where, to become a world-beating expert in your field, you need to engage in a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice in your vocation. According to Gladwell, natural talent alone is not enough to succeed at the highest level.
What this demonstrates is the effect of repetition on the neural patterns in our brains. Each thought (or action arising as a result of thought) is like a little pathway being cleared in the jungle forest of our brains. And the more we repeat that thought (tread that pathway), the more ingrained and pronounced it becomes. Unfortunately, this means that those irritating sports coaches and helicopter parents were right: Practice does indeed make perfect.
Where does this leave the future generation? If the argument holds that the Internet is indeed dumbing us down, what does the future hold for technological advances and creations? Will the pessimists be proved correct and a world that already possesses dangerously low levels of literacy be pushed further into the abyss? Or will the world continue its unabated course of technological advancement, as we did previously, when the calculator merely changed which parts of our brains we used when performing mathematical calculations.
I can already hear the naysayers highlighting the irony that I am writing about how the Internet is making us stupid, only to have the story published online. The difference is that, just as there are good and bad bacteria, there is also good and bad Internet. At The Daily Maverick we like to think we fall into “great” category where you notice large, crisp, storytelling pictures with each witty and entertaining bit of news reporting and writing. You will not notice 10 flashing adverts or a plethora of hyperlinks slicing the Achilles tendons of your attention span. Our philosophy is that the Internet is an incredible development in the history of mankind, but there are some aspects of it that the humanity just didn’t get right. Online news is one of them and every day we work relentlessly to correct the course on which the news machines set their exploratory sails.
So the next time you manage to remember your anniversary or where you put your car keys, remember, cheques are appreciated, but no need to thank us, we’re just doing our jobs!
With a high-school prize for best supporting actor in a one-act play and as captain of the chess team, Charalambous qualified to join the esteemed ranks of the Daily Maverick opinionistas. He now resides in Cape Town, working in media and irritating the old guard of the South African rugby with some liberal thinking.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine