Essays, Analyses and Meditations

Back to my essays | Back to the Philosophy pages | Author

The Medium is the Brain

  • The Web has introduced the paradigm of navigating linked documents. This is a process that introduces many distractions and ultimately reduces the depth of understanding. 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 learn more. Brains that are trained to switch focus all the time comprehend less, remember less and learn less. 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.
  • The medium we use defines how the brain works. Ultimately, the medium we use 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 books, while the "switching" brain has skills that have been created by the Web.
  • 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 of people was capable of producing information for the masses. The Web has created a large population of "prosumers", who are both passive consumers of information found on the Web and active producers of information for the Web. 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 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, but possibly a more and more effective way.
  • 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. Note that the whole effort could easily lead to a wrong answer to be accepted by everybody.
  • 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. Note that the whole effort could easily lead to picking a wrong direction.
  • At the same time, 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 are 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, choosing and synthesizing 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.
  • The usual argument about new tools is that they liberate humans from the slavery of ordinary chores so that humans can devote themselves to extraordinary feats. In reality, people liberated by technology tend to spend their acquired spare time to watch idiotic videos and reality shows, spend more time in gyms and malls, not to do science and literature. It is debatable if being "liberated" made those people more ordinary or more extraordinary. And if you use a new technology at work, it certainly improves productivity, but that also means that your company will be able to lay off more people, and one of them, sooner or later, will be you. It is not so obvioue who truly benefits from this "liberation" (certainly big capital and the entertainment industry).
  • Visual communication prevailed in the pre-literate age, when only a few people could read and write. Even reading itself was mostly a social event, with one person reading aloud for many listeners. The age of short videos is returning to the visual communication of the pre-literate age.
  • Personalized assistants that know what you like/want will tend to give it to you every time it the circumstances allow for it; but this means that your life will be confined to a very narrow range of behavior (of restaurants, of hobbies, of friends and so forth), that you will be stuck in a groove that gets deeper and deeper. You will tend to do only the things that you already like, not to try other things that you have never done today but that might be useful and fun. The whole process of cognitive development might be slowed down by the use of a personalized assistant.
  • 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 carpenting to plumbing and to construction. 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 goes on, a garage opens, a tv 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 knowlege. 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.
  • 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.
  • As our brain becomes more "superficial" the question is whether we also become more superficial in dealing with other individuals and with our world at large (family, friends, community, nation, our own life).
  • Literacy reorganizes the brain at the physical level: reading and writing hijack a brain. So do other symbolic activities and art.
  • On the other hand, it is not only how tools influence our being, but also how our being influences tools. The story is about how tools use our brains, but also 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, but also in the case of many technologies that became runaway success "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. Intelligent machines and robots will be next. Some synthetic organism will be next. At each point some old skills were lost and some new skills were acquired.

  • Patricia Greenfield (Psychology, UCLA): "Mind and Media - The effects of television, video games, and computers" (1984) and "Interactive Technologies and Human Development" (2012). Every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.
  • Susan Greenfield (Pharmacology, Oxford University): "Mind Change" (2014). Mind Change is the new Climate Change
  • Martin Robbins: A rebuttal of Susan Greenfield's theory
  • Gary Small (Neuroscience, UCLA): The digital technology is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains ("Internet is rewiring our brains")
  • Michael Merzenich (Neuroscience, UCSF): The use of a new medium creates a different brain
  • Erping Zhu (Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, Univ of Michigan): People who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more
  • Marshall McLuhan's "The Gutenberg Galaxy" (1962): "any extension of the sensorium by technological dilation has a quite appreciable effect in setting up new ratios or proportions among all the senses"... "It would seem that the extension of one or another of our senses by mechanical means... can act as a sort of twist for the kaleidoscope of the entire sensorium"... "only great inattention could conceal the role of new media of information in altering the posture and relations of our senses"
  • Marshall McLuhan's "Understanding Media" (1964): "Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body."
  • Nicholas Carr: "The Shallows" (2011). Navigating linked documents disrupts concentration and weakens comprehension
  • Robin Dunbar (Anthropology, Oxford): Social skills depend on brain size, i.e. each species has a natural limit to how much its brain can "correlate".
  • Betsy Sparrow (Columbia University): Search engines change the way people use memory
  • Guinevere Eden (Neurophysiologist, Georgetown Univ): Literacy reorganizes the brain at the physical level: reading and writing hijack a brain. So do other symbolic activities and art.
  • April Dembosky: Researchers are focusing on whether gadgets are changing how our brains work
  • Barbara Fredrickson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): this article ("The more face-to-face time you spend, the healthier you and your children are")
  • Clive Thompson: "Smarter Than You Think" (Penguin, 2013). The Internet age is producing a "radical new style of human intelligence".
  • Alice Marwick: "Status Update" (Yale Univ Press, 2013). Social media produce self-promoting competitive (but obedient and conforming) corporate citizens.
  • Matt Labash: "The Twidiocracy" (2013)
  • Michael Harris: "The End of Absence" (2014)
  • Greg Milner: "Pinpoint - How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds". Widespread use of GPS affects our cognitive-mapping abilities.
  • Sherry Turkle: "The Second Self" (1984)
  • Danah Boyd: "It's Complicated - The Social Lives of Networked Teens" (2014)
  • Benjamin Storm & others: "Using the Internet to access information inflates future use of the Internet to access other information" (Memory Journal, 2016)
  • A Pew Poll that shows people are increasingly getting their news from Facebook and Twitter: "The Evolving Role of News on Twitter and Facebook" (2015)
  • A Kaspersky Lab poll that shows digital media eroding human memory (report)
  • The writer Byatt has written that people who stare at their smartphone all the time seem happier than previous generations

Internet users in the USA: