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Self-linking behavior

June 05, 2010

Has anyone written a good essay about the soul-sapping power of ego feeds? If not, I'm going to have to give it a shot, as I'm rapidly becoming an expert on the matter.

One thing I've learned about myself is that I'm better at writing than talking. So I always cringe when I read, or watch or listen to, an interview I've done. But I'm fairly pleased with my interview with Benjamin Carlson over at the Atlantic's site. I seem to have been more or less cogent in my replies - or else the piece has just been well edited. (They may want to fix the typo in the headline, though.)

Tomorrow's New York Times Book Review has a review of The Shallows by Jonah Lehrer. I'm flattered to be reviewed by Lehrer in the Times - I'm a fan of his blog, The Frontal Cortex - but I was startled to find him claim that "the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind." I think that's incorrect, even while I'm happy to acknowledge that brain studies are imprecise and can be interpreted in different ways (and that the definition of what's "good for the mind" will vary from person to person). For a balanced and expert review of the literature, I would refer readers to a paper by Patricia M. Greenfield, the distinguished UCLA developmental psychologist, that appeared in the journal Science last year. As I point out in The Shallows, the Internet and related technologies have definitely been associated with gains in certain types of cognition, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that, as Greenfield writes, what we are sacrificing is our capability for "deep processing: mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection." (I'm not suggesting that Greenfield's paper is the definitive or final word on the subject - there are plenty more studies and reviews - but it's a good starting point.)

Finally, today's Wall Street Journal features dueling essays by me and Clay Shirky. They're dueling, though technically speaking I'm not sure the viewpoints are mutually exclusive.


Regarding: "I think that's just flat wrong, even while I'm happy to acknowledge that brain studies are imprecise and can be interpreted in different ways".

Nick, does the entire sordid history of interpreting vague studies to definitively prove social agendas - usually reactionary ones - give you even a little bit of doubt?

There's no point in my saying what e.g. the _Times_ review said, and from a far higher-status platform. But don't you think that having Science-Says, match up so amazingly well with what technophobes want to hear, is a red flag?

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 5, 2010 01:54 PM

Nick, does the entire sordid history of interpreting vague studies to definitively prove social agendas - usually reactionary ones - give you even a little bit of doubt?

Absolutely. It gives me a large amount of doubt. That's why I tried to look as broadly as possible at the existing and relevant studies, which range across psychological studies, educational studies, web user studies, and fMRI and other neuroscientific studies. I think, particularly when it comes to studies of the brain and mind, which have to be interpreted conservatively, you have to collect as much evidence as possible and see what patterns begin to emerge. I tried to lay out that evidence carefully in the book. You may have a different interpretation, or even a different set of evidence, but you're going to have to walk us through that evidence and the logic of your argument. Otherwise, it's impossible for us to evaluate that argument, or your criticism of the arguments of others.

But don't you think that having Science-Says, match up so amazingly well with what technophobes want to hear, is a red flag?

It may be a red flag. In which case you have to evaluate the evidence and the argument. Simply waving the red flag proves nothing. Besides, in this case, in addition to pointing out evidence that may fit with the preconceptions of certain "technophobes" (whomever they may be), I also pointed out evidence that would tend to conflict with what I would imagine their preconceptions to be.

Also, I don't really find one strong "technophobic" position in existence on this matter, at least not in the broader public.

Finally, I changed the phrase "flat wrong" to the more civil "incorrect" in the post. Sorry for the rhetorical overkill.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 5, 2010 05:44 PM

I've only recently read the wired article you wrote which I believe is based on the chapter in the shallows which brings together scientific evidence to support a main hypothesis (within that article at least) that i would describe as (sorry if I'm placing words in your mouth), changes to human cognition brought on by the use of the hyperlink within text are in general detrimental. There is also mention of the notion of disadvantages of multitasking though I'm not convinced it is useful to connect the two with the variety of unrelated studies presented within the body of the article.
Without any grounding in neuroscience but an interest in understanding the conclusion and ramifications of the studies I have a few questions.
In the first study of 6 subjects by Gary Small what efforts were taken to make sure that such a small sample size was in fact population representative and have further larger studies been undertaken?
What is the current (state of the art) understanding in neuroscience that bloodflow and activity are directly linked.
You state that increased activity in the brain doesn't indicate improved cognition is there reason to believe it actually proves the opposite. The closing sentiments in the wired article seems to suggest this.
In the study you mention published in the journal Media Psychology where the recall of non multimedia exposed subject experienced better recall than non multimedia subject.
were the subjects tested on emotional reaction to the content?
were the subjects asked to use the experience creatively?
As the sample group was again very small 100, how were they chosen could the subjects be in some way pre disposed to working well with textual content and have these results proved repeatable/independently verifiable?
I have not had time to look in depth at the Patricia Greenfield meta study however I'd be happy for any links you might have to a list of the studies used and how you feel their results support your hypothesis.
From my part I feel there is a very important and interesting hypothesis in your words, however this is somewhat detracted from by a lack of apparent rigour and coherency of the review of scientific literature that is presented. This may be because you assume an understanding/knowledge of the reader that isn't there in my case. For example I fail to see how multimedia/hypermedia/and continual distraction(s) (internet based or otherwise) are directly related.
I hope you don't read this as a negative review of the question posed as that is not my intent. I think its massively important and anecdotally I feel there is some real potential in the area of contemplation.

Posted by: Stewart Dinnage [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 5, 2010 06:01 PM


Jeez. I just wrote one book. Can't I take a break before writing another?

But seriously: All good questions, some of which I address in the The Shallows and some of which would best be answered by a neuroscientist or research psychologist and still others of which would best be answered by consulting the source material (I think you'll find that the book includes full citations). The Wired piece was a 2,500 word adapted excerpt from a 10,000 word chapter in an 80,000 word book. We (the Wired editor and I) tried to make the excerpt compelling as a standalone article and to highlight some of the more interesting points in the chapter, but as is always the case with such adaptations it doesn't stand for the book as a whole. This may sound like a copout, but the reason I wrote the book was to explore as fully as I could the way the Internet is influencing thought, within the broader context of the way media and other information or communication technologies have influenced intellectual history from the beginnings of that history, and to lay out my findings and opinions as clearly as I could. So if you want to read and evaluate my case in full, you're going to have to read the book, and not just some excerpts or a list of replies to questions, however good those questions may be. (I'm not trying to make a sale here; libraries have copies of the book if you don't want to buy it.)


Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 5, 2010 06:39 PM


On talking better than writing: Well, writing is easier. You can compose rather than rapidly react. Suggestion (and nothing more than that): talk slower, stay in your more comfortable but slower deeper registers (lower pitch, literally) - be an annoying interviewee in that regard. Watch old Andy Warhol interviews for a sense of the liberties you can take with tempo. (You talk fine, in my view, but I know exactly what you mean from experience though experience from a vastly less prominent position.) Also reference the old "Slow Talker Association" Bob & Ray comedy bits. Again, just an off the cuff suggestion.

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 5, 2010 08:40 PM

> Also, I don't really find one strong "technophobic" position in existence on this matter, at least not in the broader public.

C'mon, Nick, be realistic - Between "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" and "The Shallows", that just invites the technophobe to answer "Yes, yes, that horrible technology is destroying our humanity, it's sucking out our brainsssss ...". You may not be saying this (quite) - but denying the appeal to that sensibility is ludicrous.

Not all reactionary apologisms are superficial or full of cartoonish arguments. Are you familiar with _The Bell Curve_, "IQ" testing, for example? It doesn't just say "White men are best", that would be a bit too over-the-top these days. There's extensive statistics, and arguments about correlations, and pseudo-evolutionary reasoning, etc.

You aren't a neurologist. In fact, as far as I know, you don't have any scientific background at all. Why should someone have to write the equivalent of _The Mismeasure Of Man_ to justify skepticism about what certainly looks like something set up to be sophisticated fogeyism that's unfalsifiable (to the limits of the effort almost any casual reader can reasonably devote to rebuttal)?

Sigh. I shouldn't do this, since it's not my fight, and I can't benefit. We know the Web-conference-club will be up in arms. But two wrongs don't make a right.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 5, 2010 08:52 PM

be an annoying interviewee in that regard

Very good advice.

Very hard to do.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 6, 2010 12:20 AM

To Seth: I think I understand your concern. If I get you correctly, you have the reasonable and common worry that books whose theme is controversial in some way can provoke extremists who will take away an unreasonable version of its message regardless of its actual content.

To me personally, the advantages of the conversation it raises far outweigh this concern. The Bell Curve inspired some great responses, especially clarifications of the existing consensus from experts that previously did not voice their consensus very clearly. Once the smoke cleared, the voice of the experts in the field was discernable in a useful dialog independently of the politicized chatter on all sides by less knowledgeable . For me, that's a big part of the value of a book that provokes controversy. Mismeasure triggered wonderful conversations as well. In addition to all the silly polemics.

In my opinion, Carr's book is a very well written and very carefully measured account in general, freely discussing both the advantages of the nimble web mind and those of the sustained attentive mind it putatively is replacing. I think he makes some important points.

Personally I don't take away the message that we should shut down the Internet and fire up our wood stoves and churn our own butter. I take away the message that we need new skills and habits to learn to retain our existing abilities while cultivating the new ones. We should care about not being able to read deeply anymore, and think about how to preserve that ability while still having the advantages of the nimble web mind. If that's technophobic, I think being a technophile must be a rather extreme position in comparison. Just my own perspective. And I always thought I was a technophile!

To me, your concern seems a little extreme, I have never met a "technophobe" in the sense you intend (at least not yet), but I admit that as a technology consultant I wouldn't run across them very often if they do exist, and I'm not specifically looking for them. I'm willing to change my mind as I come across them. So far, I seem to find more extreme technophiles than extreme technophobes, which is why I think Carr's account is useful.

Posted by: Todd I. Stark [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 9, 2010 12:06 PM

In case anyone following this is interested,
I just completed my own review of The Shallows on Amazon:


Posted by: Todd I. Stark [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2010 05:14 PM

On the topic of New York Times reviews - Steven Johnson's 'Unboxed' column regarding The Shallows stuck in my craw for a number of reasons. I wrote a response to it over on my blog Irresponsibility - feel free to have a look and take the link.

Posted by: Irresponsibility.wordpress.com [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2010 05:27 AM

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