When I first read your 2008 Atlantic article late last year, it really crystallized something that I had sensed for quite a while. The shorting of my attention span, unable to read a few hundred pages of a book in one sitting anymore, which I had some vague sense was probably connected to constantly being online. Would you attribute the popularity of that article to the fact it struck a deep chord with a large number of people?
I think so. In fact I was kind of surprised by the breadth of the reaction because in some ways when I wrote the article, I was thinking of it more as a personal essay about my own experience. I wasn’t really sure. I talked to some people that said, ‘yeah I’m going through similar problems paying attention.’ It wasn’t clear to me if a lot of people were having this sense, this fear, or whether it was a just really small portion. I think the popularity of it was definitely related to that fact, that whether people knew it before they read the article or it struck them ‘Yeah, I’m having a similar struggle.’ It really did seem to strike a chord at that time.
President Obama gave a speech on campus yesterday. The entire time he’s speaking there’s 13,000 people standing with their smartphone either held above their head recording the speech, or in front of their faces as they’re posting to Facebook or Twitter in real time. Is this relatively harmless or a total disconnect from the environment and world around us? Are there any repercussions for this?
I think there are repercussions. I mean, if you do it in moderation it’s probably alright. People have always taken photographs of events or used technology simultaneously. The problem is, I don’t think we’ve ever seen technology like the internet or digital media in general. Where you wake up, first thing you do is check your phone or your laptop then you carry this technology with you all day. It’s such a powerful kind of distraction technology and interruption technology, that it becomes a problem when you can’t really experience anything. Whether it’s an intellectual type of task or whether it’s watching someone give a speech or having a conversation with someone else without your attention being divided and I think we use this so intensively that we start to train our brains to expect to be constantly stimulated with multiple streams of information and other things and I think at that point it becomes a problem. Because there’s so much that is only possible for our minds, when we’re able to tune out distractions and focus on one thing.
There seems to be this assumption that access to the internet equals freedom. That being online will make us smarter, more informed and our lives will become more efficient. On a larger scale, there’s this belief that if people living under authoritarian regimes can somehow get open internet access, this would be liberating. Is it naïve to think this? What’s the downside of all of this?
I think it is naïve to think that. I think that whenever a powerful new technology comes along you tend to focus on the benefits at first and have these kind of utopian dreams. There’s no doubt that there’s all sorts of good things that come from having access to have all this information and all this communication. We sometimes think of technology as freeing us but then we become slaves to the technology. I think is what’s crucial is that people are aware that you can become the servant of the technology or the tool rather than the master. And so there is this naïve belief that ‘oh, this is a liberating technology’ and there’s certain aspects of it that are liberating but it can also be a technology that limits and enslaves us. Even politically, there’s two sides to the equation. You get more freedom of speech in a way, and more communication. On the other hand governments and other centralized sources of power get more power to monitor you and know what you’re doing. So you have to be focused on both the real benefits and the real dangers of the technology.
It’s my understanding that constantly being online rewires the neural pathways deep in our brain. Are there potential evolutionary consequences of this-that the internet, for better or worse, may actually be redirecting human evolution?
Well, I don’t know. There are two kinds of adaptivity. There’s the evolutionary kind which is genetic, and that takes place over very long periods of time and so it’s hard to make predictions on twenty years of experience what’s going to happen 5000,00 years from now which is kind of the scale. Then there’s the kind of adaptivity that goes on throughout our individual lifetimes. Our bodies adapt to the ways we use them and our brains adapt too. The whole phenomenon of neuroplasticity tells us that throughout our lives our brains are adapting to the circumstances they’re in. From the environment to the way we use them. So I do think it’s possible to train yourself to think in particular ways, then not be very good at thinking in other ways. It all depends on your environment, your circumstances, and your habits of mind. So my fear is that there is something deep happening within our brains, that in a sense we’re optimizing our brains to be stimulated all the time to take in lots of bits of information simultaneously and in small bits but we’re not practicing more attentive ways of thinking. There are some very important parts of our mental lives that can only take place when you can pay attention. Things like forming rich, long term memories, having big conceptual thoughts, which don’t happen if you’re constantly distracted. It only happens when you really start to tie lots of things together and that requires attentiveness. What seems to be the case, which is that our brains do adapt at a physical level to the way we use them and we are changing our habits of thinking and our habits of paying attention then, we are probably setting off some fairly deep changes in ourselves.
I’ve only been online for about seven years. Looking back, I can see that my mental habits changed fairly quickly. I think of kids that are being born into this and how that’s going to affect them.
One of the interesting things that came through my research is that young kids didn’t actually used to spend much time online compared to their parents. Until recently, if you looked at the number of hours people spent at computer’s online, it was when you went to work in your early twenties then that shot up if you looked at younger kids, they weren’t really at a computer that much. Now that every kid has on ipod touch and a smartphone or atleast a cellphone and laptop and an ipad, suddenly that’s all changing the amount of time, even very young children spend interacting either online or interacting with a computer is going way up. The latest stage is the touch screen interface of ipads and ipod touches and stuff and suddenly a one or two year old can pick that up and immediately know how to manipulate it, unlike a keyboard or something. So it happens a lot that parents, a lot of educators say ‘lets push these gadgets at them’ and so you see kindergarteners be given ipads and stuff. It does seem to me through the first ten year of life, you need to give kids a lot of different experiences and let them interact with a lot of things. And sure, spend some time with the computer or whatever, but if you start narrowing their experiences at that crucial time when you’re forming a lot of that circuitry in your brain, then I do think it has even bigger affects.
You write about the different mediums that have come along through history that fundamentally alter our perceptions of reality-the mechanical clock, the printing press for example- what makes this time in history with this technology, different then the past?
I think the internet continues trends we’ve already seen. Particularly over the last hundred years or so with mass media whether it’s radio, or television or P.C’s or so forth. A lot of the trends we’re seeing with the internet are kind of accelerations or amplifications of the desire to always be entertained or, to constantly communicate and to communicate in shorter and shorter bursts. Rather than say, writing a long letter. So in many ways it’s a kind of continuous process, but as I said, what’s different is it’s always there. I think a lot of internet companies, it’s in their business interest to kind of keep us distracted and keep us checking the device and keep us intrigued by it and so you now you combine the fact that the technology is always there with the fact that humans beings are kind of very distractible to begin with, plus the interest of the internet companies and you get something that I don’t think we’ve seen before. You compare it to television. Yeah, people watch a lot of tv but your tv viewing tended to be segregated into particular parts of the day. You come home from work and watch, you didn’t go to work and there’s a tv in front of you and you have a tv in your pocket. So even that, is different in the way we interact with it.