by Russ Roberts on July 21, 2008

in Technology

Are our brains being affected by technology? Probably. Nicholas Carr worries:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone,
or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural
circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I
can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I
can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book
or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in
the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours
strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case
anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three
pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else
to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the
text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a

I know what he means. On the other hand, I’m reading Anna Karenina right now. On a Kindle. So it’s really a mixed bag. Carr concedes so much by the end of the article. My favorite part is his chronicling of the history of similar concerns:

Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to
glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the
worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus,
Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people
came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they
used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of
the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become
forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of
information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very
knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They
would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.”
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 (if not wisdom).

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set
off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo
Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to
intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their
minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would
undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes,
and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor
Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing
press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were
unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would


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