Transcending our literary bounds

The human brain is a massive construct whose full potential scientists are only able to measure about ten percent. Ten thousand years ago, the average size of the human brain was ten percent larger than it is now, yet despite our loss in brain size, we are incredibly advanced in comparison to our sister species’. Why is that?

It’s because our brain evolved to become powerful, as well as more compact. In the last ten thousand years, the brain has become more wrinkled, invaginating into itself to make a big enough brain with a huge storage capacity.

The human brain has evolved to become more efficient, and in that quest, it has become smaller. In this case, however, less is more. In an almost poetic way, technology has evolved alongside humanity in almost the exact same path. Before the 1950s, technology was built big to store a lot. After the invention of transistors in 1954, smaller forms of technology ended up storing huge amounts of information. Fast forward fifty years, and there are microchips, the size of a dime, storing hundreds of gigabytes.

There is a pattern in both the evolution of the brain and the evolution of technology. They are getting smaller and more efficient; they process data and condense it to process it faster. They are becoming incredible devices of storage. However, some believe that the human brain is losing its efficiency due to our significant achievements in technology. In Nicholas Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” he states that because of how easy information is to access and store on our computers, our brains no longer have to work as hard, and thus we are slowly losing our ability to concentrate and absorb long packets of information presented to us. He suggests that the information streamlined to us is full of distractions, and we fall prey to the subtle influence of the media. Ultimately, he says that our brain has the capacity to rewire itself when exposed to modern technology, and as a result of our increased reliance on it, our ability to critically analyze and contemplate on literature has been hindered.

At the beginning of his essay, Carr recites that his mind is slipping. Essentially, he has difficulty in concentrating whenever he attempts to read a large book or article. He then relates to how he does research for his articles today, as opposed to how it was done previously. Carr says that all his research which originally “required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after.” Carr admits that he spends a majority of his time on the internet, even when he’s not researching for an article and theorizes that perhaps his time spent online is actually changing the way he thinks.

According to a study, referenced by Carr, about online research habits, “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.” Carr completely neglects the fact that unlike the era before the internet, there is an information overload in modern society. Counter to a time where citizens were only knowledgeable about the events in their small community, the modern era citizen can live in a remote town in Kansas and know the local events in a random town in Baghdad. News is updated every minute, and every society has some socio-political issue going on, and it’s completely ridiculous to expect any person to read a six page article on any such event.

When one browses the internet, most sites structure their content so one can get a general idea about what’s going on in every section, whether that be world news or celebrity gossip. Websites like Reddit, Yahoo, and Google News all have major headlines that users can pick and choose to read about what they’re interested in. That doesn’t mean that they have to be an expert in whatever they choose to read about. People don’t have the time to read War and Peace every time there’s a new political ramification in Syria. And perhaps the brain is changing to adapt to this method. Perhaps it’s allowing us to scan and make out what is most important in a series of articles. Is that really so bad?

I don’t believe the brain is getting inefficient at all. This is all part of a long-term evolution that has been occurring since before the beginning of man. People have taught themselves to speed read, which is just omitting non-essential word clusters and mental imagery in order to quickly scan and understand literature.

People use the process of chunking, in order to remember numbers, passwords, and almost everything. There’s a huge amount of psychological studies done on ways to efficiently improve human memory, and all of them involve breaking down information in order to quickly absorb it into long term memory. I may not be able to recite Brave New World word for word, but I can easily write a summary about it. Any quotes or phrases can be searched for online. And that’s the magic of human and technological evolution; they are evolving side by side and making each other more efficient.

Delving even further back, Carr speaks about how Nietzsche’s writing was observed to have changed after he began using a typewriter, that his prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style,” and that this effect was because the brain “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.” Carr eventually goes on to state that the internet has the most profound effect as it is “subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.” A true fact indeed. Especially when he adds that the internet is being littered with distractions much like “television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.” We have reached a point in society where we could potentially enter a Huxlean world, where humanity is distracted from real issues and calmly ruled without quarrel because we wouldn’t even care about pressing issues. However, he suggests that the problem is due to technology as a whole, rather than a few corrupt individuals. I think most humans are very likely to be engrossed with current events, but how are many of us to know whether an article is editorialized? The media lies and has lied on many occasions; one can’t give blame technology for what is innately a human fault.

Furthermore, Carr supports his belief that the internet is programming us to think differently in a historical context by referring to Frederick Winslow Taylor who broke “down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then tested different ways of performing each one, [he] created a set of precise instructions for how each worker should work.” The workers complained, “claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the factory’s productivity soared.” Carr brings that idea back round when he says that the internet is an efficient machine with “legions of programmers are intent on finding the ‘one best method’—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as ‘knowledge work.’” His point is that the internet is being programmed so we don’t have to work hard to find what we need. We will end up relying on the internet so much that if a time ever came for us to actually work hard for research, we wouldn’t be able to because we are already programmed to scan and browse rather than read deeply.

And in some ways, he is absolutely correct. However, this isn’t a problem with the brain losing its efficiency. This is just the basic characteristic of human laziness. We don’t want to work hard. But I guarantee that any person still has the capability to research, if the need arises. We may not all be reading something so dry as War and Peace, but there are still thousands, if not millions, reading Harry Potter over and over for fun. We haven’t lost our ability to read deeply, but we have gotten lazier over time. And that may be a bigger issue overall.

Near the end of his essay, Carr reveals his true fear. The fear of Artificial Intelligence. He acknowledges that perhaps he is a bit too apprehensive about the technology and correlates his idea with an anecdote about Socrates having his own apprehensions about the development of writing. He mentions that “Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge.” And he’s perfectly valid in fearing such a possibility. It’s the idea that we are fostering such a dependence on technology that in the near future, we may not know how to live without it. Are we really losing our minds? I don’t think so.

As technology evolves, we evolve alongside it. And maybe that means we’ll rely more on technology. Maybe that means we’ll rely a little less on ourselves. And maybe, we’ll form a symbiotic bond with developing technology, and our reliance on it may be the only human thing about us left. It’s an idea present throughout all of science fiction and perhaps it’s the next stage in human evolution.

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