In 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote an article for The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” It’s a terrific article regarding how the Internet affects us mentally. He mentions Plato’s Phaedrus, stating, “Socrates 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.’”
It fascinates me that this 2,380-year-old topic is just as, if not more, relevant today as it was back then. As the written word evolves from writing utensil to printing press to typewriter to the smartphones, iPads, and whatever other devices we carry around today, information is available at a moment’s notice. But as easy and quick as it is to access this information, it’s gone just as immediately. This is why I believe the Internet has made me dumber.
My boss and I were talking about how just six or seven years ago, he’d have no trouble finding a payphone and calling his work, wife, parents, or friend. Now, without that phone book in our cell phones, we’d be lost. I used to come up with mnemonics to remember things, like driving directions or addresses. Now with my GPS, it takes me a ridiculous amount of time to retain the routes. Once it was a necessity to remember these things; now it’s a reason to pat yourself on the back. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve googled Direct Partners’ zip code, and I still don’t know it.
Cognitive Neurology was my favorite subject in school, and though most of the material is vague now, one thing stands out. Our brain needs exercise too. In the past decade, electronics (hand-held games, computer programs, etc.) and have been released, marketed to a middle-aged audience and older. They’re designed to stimulate brain cells, keep them active and in some cases form new nerve cells. Even Plato knew the importance of keeping our brain active. How we process information each day is our brain’s daily exercise. We exercise it as we put forth effort into the process of retaining what we read. Searching our brain to recall that information is another way. Googling the definition of a word, then forgetting it after using it is like driving .3 miles to get bread when you could’ve easily walked. They are unfortunate shortcuts that replace a beneficial journey. They are missed opportunities to do your body good.
In 2010, everything is quick, almost instantaneous. I remember AOL dial up; I remember hearing the busy signal, seeing the retry error message, and waiting for what seemed like forever. Use of text messages are increasing, which means the content we are communicating is becoming shorter. Twitter is another example of this: 50 million tweets daily, none can be longer than 140 characters. Reviews are being written in real time. The sense of urgency in our daily activities is hard to ignore.
As our exposure to these texts, tweets, and status updates grows, we are becoming more inclined and willing to scan, rather than fully read. When I Google search, I find that if I don’t locate my answer after skimming the first few results, I will change my search keywords before actually going to one of the sites to further investigate. Another example of this is how often I use the “Find” option on a website so I don’t have to read through the entire article. I want my answer and I want it now.
The speed and ease with which we access information has become a process that lacks depth. We’re just skimming the surface to get what we want instead of digging deep and grabbing hold. We’re taking away opportunities for our brain to complete the various processes needed to retain information.
I recognize my need for instant gratification. The easy access has spoiled me, or at least my dependence on it has. In most cases with the Internet, we output as quickly as we input. There is no denying the truth in Plato’s words. Many of us have become reliant on the written word. This applies for all of technology. I don’t expect anyone to completely break free of the dependence, because wouldn’t we be dumber not to use the quickest, most efficient resources? Why lug out the dust-covered dictionary when you have dictionary.com at your fingertips? That would be counterproductive. And that is another argument in itself.
So I’ve come up with three things I will start doing in order to thoroughly understand and retain the information I seek.
1. Confess— I am a Googleholic. I will attempt to be aware of my dependence.
By acknowledging and familiarizing myself with my habits, I will put effort into retaining the information after the hunt. There is no reason to have searched the same question more than once.
2. Mental Exercises— There are many activities we can do to improve various brain functions such as focus, memory, and problem solving. Setting aside 5-10 minutes a day to empty our minds (which is done in meditation), utilize our five senses, or learn a new task are all examples of ways to exercise our mind.
3. Physical Exercises— We all know how good exercise is for you. It slims, tones, shapes and strengthens your body. There are mental benefits as well. Physical exercise is one of the few causes of neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons. In addition to creating neurons, it also reinforces and repairs neural connections and networks.
I’m excited to see how our lives will simplify as technology becomes more complicated. Though my habits have made me lazier and slightly dumber, I need to take advantage of the shortcuts I’m given while making sure to keep my body and mind fit.
I’d love to hear what you have to think about Plato’s argument, and whether or not you believe it applies today.
To learn more about ways to exercise your body and mind, visit this insightful website: http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/exercise.html.