(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")
Appendix: The Medium is the Brain
The World-wide Web has popularized the paradigm of navigating linked documents. This is an example of a process that introduces many distractions and inevitably reduces the depth of understanding (or, at least, increases the effort one has to make in order to stay focused). Generally speaking, the life of the individual who is permanently plugged into the network (hyperlink navigation, instant messages, live news) has a cost: the continuous shift of context and therefore of focus takes a cognitive toll on the brain.
Every time the brain has to reorient itself there is a cost in accessing long-time memory and organizing one's "thoughts". That brain gets trained for short attention spans. It is physically a different kind of brain from the brain that meditates and contemplates; from the brain that is capable of "deep understanding". The latter is trained by linear "texts" (or lectures or videos or whatever) that require the brain to remain on the same subject for a longer period of time and ransack long-term memory for all the appropriate resources to "understand" as much as possible. Brains that are trained to process linear texts comprehend more, remember more and, in my opinion, learn more, something already found in Erping Zhu's study “Hypermedia Interface Design” (1999). People who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more. Brains that are trained to switch focus all the time comprehend less, remember less and, possibly, learn less, as argued by Nicholas Carr in “The Shallows” (2010). This is due to the fact that it is "expensive" for the brain to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory (the "cognitive load"). Cognitive "overload" makes it difficult for the brain to decode and store information, and to create the appropriate links to pre-existing memories.
Guinevere Eden discussed how literacy reorganizes the brain at the physical level in “Development of Neural Mechanisms For Reading” (2003): reading and writing hijack a brain (so do other symbolic activities and art). Patricia Greenfield's study “Technology and Informal Education” (2009) shows that every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. Gary Small's “Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching” (2009) proves how digital technology is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains. Betsy Sparrow's “Google Effects on Memory” (2011) shows how search engines change the way people use memory.
The medium that we use defines how the brain works. Ultimately, the medium physically changes our brain. The medium shapes the brain.
Every medium fosters some cognitive skills in the brain, but at the expense of others. There is a sort of zero sum of cognitive skills. A blind person improves smell and hearing. A videogame addict improves her visual-spatial skills but at the expense of other skills. The "focused" brain has skills that have been created by, for example, books, whereas the "switching" brain has skills that have been created by, for example, the Web.
The "switching" brain will lead to a more superficial society, in which brains are less and less capable of deep understanding. This is actually a process that has been going on for some centuries (if not millennia). At the time of Homer many people could memorize a lengthy poem. Before the invention of writing, brains had to memorize many more items than after the invention of writing. Before the invention of the specialist, people had to be experts in many fields of life, from carpentry to plumbing. After the invention of the society of specialists, we don't quite know how things work: we just know that by touching a switch or a lever something happens (a light comes on, a garage opens, a television set turns on, water comes out of a faucet). The history of civilization is a history of reducing the amount of cognitive skills required to survive. Civilizations have constantly been refining the process of finding and using knowledge at the expense of the process of storing and understanding knowledge. The Web-based society is simply a further step in this process, where navigating and multi-tasking prevail over deep understanding. We don't need to understand how things happen but just how to make things happen (e.g., if you want light, press a switch). Eventually, human brains may not be able to understand anything of the world that they "navigate" but will be able to do a lot more a lot faster in it.
This society of superficial brains will inevitably change the meaning of what is important. Science, literature and art were at the top of the hierarchy when deep understanding was important. Culture is not democratic at all. The academia decides what is more important and what is less important. In a society of superficial brains that don't need to understand much it is debatable whether a classic poem is still more important than a pulp novel. The elite-controlled hierarchy of knowledge becomes pointless in a world of superficial brains.
The switching brain works in fundamentally different ways and inevitably creates a fundamentally different society of brains. Literacy reorganizes the brain at the physical level: reading and writing hijack a brain; browsing and searching hijack a brain too. Here are some of the changes in the way the switching brain works.
The Web has so much information that one does not need intelligence anymore to solve a problem: most likely the solution can be found by navigating hyperlinked pages on the Web. The new way to solve a problem is not to concentrate on the nature of the problem, study the dynamics of the system and then logically infer what the solution could be. The new way is to search the Web for the solution posted by someone who knows it. At one point Artificial Intelligence was trying to build "expert systems" that would use knowledge and inference to find solutions. The Web makes the amount of knowledge virtually infinite and reduces the inference required by problem solving to just searching the knowledge for an adequate match. No mathematical logic needed. We are evolving towards a less and less intelligent way of solving problems, albeit possibly a more and more effective way. The cognitive skill that we are losing is logical inference.
The combination of Web search and smartphones is also removing the need to think and argue about the truth of a statement: you can just "google" it and find the answer in a few seconds. There is no need to have a lengthy and emotional argument with a friend about who came first, the French or the USA revolution: just "google" it. Before the advent of the smartphone, one had to use all the brain's inferential skills and all the knowledge learned over a lifetime to guess the correct answer and to convince the audience. And the whole effort could easily lead to a wrong answer to be accepted by everybody. But that was a cognitive skill: rhetoric.
Starting in 2014, most universities noticed a decline in the number of students enrolled in foreign-language classes. The simplest explanation is that young people don't see a career in speaking a second language because soon machine translation will make that skill irrelevant. The risk, of course, is that human society will have to cope with amateurish machine translations. The other risk is that humans will lose the skill to speak multiple languages.
By the same token, there is no need to use a brain's orientation skills to find a place: just use the navigation system of the car or the smartphone. This removes the need to think and argue about whether to turn right or left. Before the advent of navigation systems, one had to use all the brain's inferential skills and all the knowledge learned over a lifetime to guess which way to go. And the whole effort could easily lead to picking a wrong direction. But that was a cognitive skill: orientation.
As our brain becomes more "superficial" it is likely that we also become more superficial in dealing with other individuals and with our world at large (family, friends, community, nation, our own life). One cognitive skill that may get lost in the age of "social networking" is precisely: socializing.
One skill that the switching brain is acquiring in place of the "focusing" skills is the skill of "posting" information. Before the Web only an elite was capable of producing content for the masses. The Web has created a large population of "prosumers", who are both passive consumers of content found on the Web and active producers of content for the Web (hats off to Alvin Toffler who coined the term in his 1980 book “The Third Wave”, when the Internet was still an experiment). Social networking software, in particular, encourages people to post news about themselves, thus creating a diary read by (potentially) millions of people. This is fostering a cognitive skill about "marketing" yourself to the world, about how to present your personality and your life to the others.
The simple act of browsing the Web constitutes a new cognitive skill. The browser is becoming de facto a new organ of the body, an organ used to explore the virtual universe of the Web, just like a hand or an eye is used to explore the physical universe. This organ is generating a new sense just like the hand created the sense of touch and the eye created the sense of sight. This new sense implies a new function in the brain just like any sense implies a corresponding function in the brain.
The switching brain must also be refining another skill that has been evolving over the last century: choice. Before the invention of cable television and the multiplication of channels the viewer had little choice on what to watch. For example, there were only a few evening news programs (in some countries only one on the national channel). The whole country was watching the same news at the same time. There was no need for searching and choosing the news. Cable television and now the Web have multiplied the possible sources of news and made them available around the clock. The "superficial" brain may not want to delve deeply into any particular event but probably needs to be much more skilled at searching and choosing the news. Choice is also involved in social networking systems to decide what is worth discussing, what is worth knowing and what is worth telling others about yourself.
On the other hand, it is not only that tools influence our being, but also that our being influences tools. The story is as much about how tools use our brains as about how our minds use tools. Often people end up using a tool in a way that is not the one it was designed for. This is particularly obvious in the case of software applications, but also in the case of many technologies that became runaway successes "despite" what the inventors originally intended for them. So much so that different people may use the same tool in different manners for different purposes (e.g., Facebook). We express ourselves with the tools we have made as much as we see ourselves in the tools we have made.
The Web is the latest in a long series of new media that have shaped the human brain, starting with facial expression, language and writing. At each point some old skills were lost and some new skills were acquired. Your brain "is" the medium that shaped it. For better and for worse, you "are" the gadgets that you use.
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