Is the internet changing our lives?
The internet often tells us what we think we know, spreading misinformation and nonsense while it’s at it. It can substitute surface for depth, imitation for authenticity, and its passion for recycling would surpass the most committed environmentalist. In 10 years, I’ve seen thinking habits change dramatically: if information is not immediately available via a Google search, people are often completely at a loss. And of course a Google search merely provides the most popular answer, not necessarily the most accurate. Nevertheless, there is no question, to my mind, that the access to raw information provided by the internet is unparalleled. We’ve all read that the internet sounds the death knell of reading, but people read online constantly – we just call it surfing now. What’s being read is changing, often for the worse; but it is also true that the internet increasingly provides a treasure trove of rare documents and images, and as long as we have free access to it, then the internet can certainly be a force for education and wisdom.
Sometimes I think my ability to concentrate is being nibbled away by the internet. In those quaint days before the internet, once you made it to your desk there wasn’t much to do. Now you sit down and there’s a universe of possibilities – many of them obscurely relevant to the work you should be getting on with – to tempt you. To think that I can be sitting here, trying to write something about the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman and, a moment later, on the merest whim, while I’m in Swedish mode, can be watching a clip from a Swedish documentary about the jazz musician Don Cherry – that is a miracle (albeit one with a very potent side-effect, namely that it’s unlikely I’ll ever have the patience to sit through an entire Bergman film again). Then there’s another thing. From the age of 16, I got into the habit of compiling detailed indexes in the backs of books of poetry and drama. So if there was a quote I needed for an assignment, I would spend hours going through my books, seeking it out. Now I just google key words.
It’s curious that some of the most vociferous critics of the internet – those who predict that it will produce generations of couch potatoes – are the very sorts of people who are benefiting most from this wonderful, liberating, organic extension of the human mind. They are academics, scientists, scholars and writers, who fear that the extraordinary technology they use every day is a danger to the unsophisticated. They underestimate the capacity of the human mind to capture and capitalise on new ways of storing and transmitting information. When I was at school I learned by heart great swathes of science textbooks. What a waste of my neurons, all clogged up with knowledge and rules that I can now obtain with the click of a mouse. At its best, the internet is no threat to our minds. It is another liberating extension of them, as significant as books, the abacus or the pocket calculator.
The evidence that the internet has a deleterious effect on the brain is zero. In fact, by looking at the way human beings gain knowledge in general, you would probably argue the opposite. The opportunity to have multiple sources of information or opinion at your fingertips, and to dip into these rather than trawl laboriously through a whole book, is highly conducive to the acquisition of knowledge. It is being argued by some that the information coming into the brain from the internet is the wrong kind of information. It’s too short, it doesn’t have enough depth, so there is a qualitative loss. It’s an interesting point, but the only way you could argue it is to say that people are misusing the internet. It’s a bit like saying to someone who’s never seen a car before and has no idea what it is: “Why don’t you take it for a drive and you’ll find out?” If you seek information on the internet like that, there’s a good chance you’ll have a crash. But that’s because your experience has yet to grasp what a car is.