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Net brain syndrome

July 19, 2008

Discussions of my Atlantic article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, continue. Edge has been hosting a forum with comments from Danny Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Larry Sanger, George Dyson, Jaron Lanier, and Douglas Rushkoff. This past week the Britannica Blog launched a forum with posts from Clay Shirky, Sven Birkerts, Matthew Battles, and Sanger. I also contributed a reply to Shirky's piece.

UPDATE: In today's Sunday Times (of London), Bryan Appleyard contemplates the costs of "chronic distraction."


I saw (and enjoyed) your Atlantic piece and the coverage in Edge.

The journal Science has a new report finding that as journals go online, that the scope of cited articles drops with less breadth, fewer authors, and a focus on recent articles which cuts out older:

Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship

Posted by: ScottSTL [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2008 06:37 PM

While Nick's article made some sense to me, the one in science is completely counterintuitive and against the experience of pretty much every practicing scientist I know. If anything, it's made most of us more efficient at finding the right material and not limited in finding the papers in the citation index of the papers we read.

Posted by: mndoci [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2008 09:53 PM

Good that the article got such interest. We are using tools without reflecting on their impact on our psyche.

Posted by: Ivo [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 20, 2008 12:54 AM


I know you're ahead of the curve on this stuff, but if you've not seen it already, you would probably be interested in Maggie Jackson's book "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age".

I confess that I've not yet read her book - I heard about it on Point of Inquiry, on which Maggie was interviewed two weeks ago.

The book apparently describes new research into attention, which sounds to be an interesting field relevant to your article.



Posted by: TAW [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 20, 2008 06:56 PM

I expected more when I clicked the link to the Edge forum. Instead I got much bad argument wrapped in even worse writing. Ironic.

The exception was, as usual, Jaron Lanier:

Designers of digital experiences should rejoice when an articulate critic comes along, because that's a crucial step in making digital stuff better.

Posted by: Timothy Swan [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 20, 2008 08:50 PM

Very interesting post and article. Interestingly, an article I just read in the Economist titled " Great minds think (too much) alike " came to a similar conclusion about information on the internet:

Electronic searching means that no relevant paper is likely to go unread, but narrowing the definition of “relevance” risks reducing the cross-fertilisation of ideas that sometimes leads to big, unexpected advances. As a wag once put it, an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until, eventually, he knows everything about nothing. It would be ironic if that is the sort of expertise that the world wide web is creating.

But whatever the effects such a technological medium has on the general public whether ill or good, I think its up to the individual to balance the quick look up-ability of the internet, with deeper reading and understanding of information of traditional published material.

Posted by: Don Kim [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 21, 2008 04:24 PM


We humans will eventually learn to cope with information overload and distraction, just as we deal with the effects of any new technology. At the very least, we will develop better ways to filter and manage work flow, and ensure time outs.

Longer term, we need new new technologies to help us cope and even thrive in this new ocean.

With Toshiba and others preparing to deliver storage media to match the capacity of the human brain - about 10 terabytes - we will be able to download much of the overload to our external "devices."

What will be crucial is new interface technology between our brains and our devices.

Our biological brains will also need to stretch to manage the increased load, and our societies and workplaces will also have to change to accommodate our new reality.

In the meantime, you can now go into "digital detox" at hotels and spas like the Fairmont Banff Springs, where you hand over your devices, and commit to massages, not messages.

Posted by: Alastair Sweeny [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 21, 2008 05:51 PM

I second Tim's mentioning of Maggie Jackson's book. I'm almost through it -- I've been so distracted lately! ;) -- and recommend it highly.

Posted by: Christian Nunciato [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 22, 2008 12:43 PM

There does seem to be a lot of discussion about this, but I'm not sure why people find it so interesting. It's just another case of 'if you don't practice something you lose your ability to do that thing' (or more simply, 'use it or lose it'). If you think that being able to read long in-depth writings is important, then spend some of your time reading long in-depth writings.

There are plenty of examples of new technologies that fundamentally changed the way we relate to a medium. The written word displaced oral history (I'm sure there were complaints that people could just not remember long chains of facts any more). Recorded music has largely displaced live music amoung groups of friends (no more sing-songs around the piano, and most people cannot play an instrument, a skill that used to be about as common as the ability to read). The advent of the calculator means that people relate to numbers in a different way - there has been a loss of familiarity with numbers and with it a loss of mathematical intuition. The replacement of the slide-rule by the calculator and computer has meant that the habit of thinking in rough estimates (which were used to cross-check slide-rule calculations) has gone, and with it the ability to know that numerical result 'just feels wrong'. The advent of ready-meals and fast-food and the resulting lessening of the ability to cook has fundamentally altered our relationship with food (and is evidenced by the growth in obsesity). The list goes on.

But the old skills are never entirely lost. There are always people who like to cook (some I hear even grow their own vegetables), who like to play live music, who like to learn and recite poetry, who like to do calculations in their head and yes, I hear there are even people who like to read long books.

Posted by: martin [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 23, 2008 11:04 AM

Nick - For what it is worth - I have jumped into the debate you stirred up, focusing more on what was not said, rather than what was said. My posting is available at http://edgeperspectives.typepad.com/edge_perspectives/2008/08/stupidity-and-t.html
Thanks again for helping to make all of us think harder about some important issues.

Posted by: John Hagel [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 21, 2008 10:58 AM

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