A couple of interesting stories recently crossed my desk, suggesting that the Internet (and by extension, social media) can have some serious unanticipated effects on  heavy users. The first story (another to follow a future entry) pertains to the recent mainstream media love affair with Nicholas Carr, author of the recently published ''The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains''  (W. W. Norton, 2010) Carr's compelling argument, in a nutshell, is that the emergence of the Internet is causing the human brain to change. As people become more efficient at multitasking and searching for information, they 'become less creative in their thinking.' In Carr's view, 'even if people get better at hopping from page to page, they will still be losing their abilities to employ a slower, more contemplative mode of thought. He elaborated on the root of this evolutionary trend in a Q&A that appeared in the book blog of The New York Times, Paper Cuts, earlier this month:

What changes our brains is, on the one hand, repetition and, on the other hand, neglect. That’s why I believe the Net is having such far-reaching intellectual consequences. When we’re online, we tend to perform the same physical and mental actions over and over again, at a high rate of speed and in a state of perpetual distractedness. The more we go through those motions, the more we train ourselves to be skimmers and scanners and surfers. But the Net provides no opportunity or encouragement for more placid, attentive thought. What we’re losing, through neglect, is our capacity for contemplation, introspection, reflection — all those ways of thinking that require attentiveness and deep concentration. 

What struck me most in Carr's comments is that phrase, 'state of perpetual distractedness.'  And what Internet user would argue that attention span hasn't diminished as a result of having so much information at our fingertips, available both instantaneously and simultaneously?  As Richard Saul Wurman pointedly observed in his 1989 book Information Anxiety, 'a weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th C. England.' As I write this installment, I notice that I have 9 Firefox tabs opened.  With a click of the mouse, I can temporarily put my writing on hold to find out how Mexico is faring against Uruguay in the World Cup, consult my Hotmail, check out how many visitors have been to my restaurant blog since the last time I checked 15 minutes ago, see what's up at Facebook and Twitter, and be back before you knew I was gone.  That means that at the same time I was collecting my thoughts for this installment and trying to organize and write them coherently, I managed to mentally ingest several disparate types of additional pieces of information.  Exactly what Carr is getting at, I think.  In short, as I write this installment I am probably damaging my brain via cognitive overload - a very discomforting thought.  I say 'damaging' because I firmly believe that diminishing one's capacity for 'contemplation, introspection, and reflection' is a really bad thing.  Are we 'evolving' into a race of super multitaskers who lack the capacity for contemplation?  Are human beings spiralling backwards to a pre-conscious state?

These questions got me thinking about some of the ideas I recall from a fascinating book I read several years ago by Julian Jaynes entitled, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin, 1976).  Drawing on split-brain laboratory studies and archaeological evidence, Jaynes compellingly argued that ancient peoples, ranging from Mesopotamia to Peru, could not 'think' as we do today (or at least before the Internet) and thus were not conscious.  Lacking the ability to introspect, they experienced auditory hallucinations attributed to the voices of the gods, which told a person what to do in novel or stressful situations.  Humanity essentially had to learn consciousness as a result of catastrophe and cataclysm, as recently as 3000 years ago.  So getting back to Carr's treatise, contemplate this, if you can still contemplate anything: if ancient societies were preconscious, are we heading to a future society that is, in essence, post-conscious