Are we heading for a crash on the Information Superhighway?
In 2008, the “How much information?” project was created to measure the world’s output of data, and its findings were astonishing The study reported that in 2008, the average American consumed an average of 12 hours worth of information a day. This figure corresponds to approximately 100,500 words or 34 gigabytes, coming from more than 20 different sources.
From print media and endless television channels to the newest smartphones, we are bombarded with more information than ever before.
One of the most significant developments in the past decade is the growth of the internet and, just as important, the search engines created to navigate it. Never before have individuals been so directly connected to what is nearly the entire catalogue of human knowledge. Only a few years ago, looking for information meant endless hours of fruitlessly searching and poring over materials in a library. Today, the answers effortlessly and quickly reveal themselves, indexed and neatly listed.
But swift progress of this sort always has its limitations. Living in a world of instantly available information and constant mental stimulation causes problems we are only beginning to understand. In a 2011 article in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr used Google as a metaphor for the wider internet and asked whether it makes us “stupid.”
Carr presents many examples of digressive behavior, including concentration loss, lower memory retention, and an inability to analyze material in-depth. “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles,” he comments. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Perhaps these “developments” should come as no surprise. Given such a context why should we exert energy to memorize something? From laptops to smartphones to GPS navigation systems, we are constantly connected to answers. But constant connection also means that work is always at hand.
Many people feel an email must be answered, regardless of whether they are in the workplace or in bed. This is the expectation today’s society has placed upon us, and we have grown to expect the same of others. Everything is urgent and must be dealt with immediately, yet the number of tasks keeps increasing, resulting in not being able to focus on any single one in depth.
This phenomenon is ever-present in the news media. Headlines and tidbits from around the world constantly scroll across screens and monitors, while deep analysis and thought are all too often left out.
At the same time, new skill sets have developed to meet the challenges of today’s fast moving world. Constant change means quickly adopting different ways of learning. We must become flexible and able to multitask with various tools. We need to be able to quickly analyze and manipulate large quantities of information effectively, in order to understand the big picture. No longer can you rely on old tools and skills.
As Thomas Friedman writes in “The World Is Flat,” the Internet has leveled the playing field for all competitors. Creativity and ingenuity are increasingly used to set them apart. Furthermore, as technology makes the world smaller, working relationships with people from around the world become more of a necessity, hopefully making us understand and be more empathic to other cultures.
In certain respects, all this is no different from past adaptations required, for instance, by the rise of mass literacy, which also had its fair share of skeptics. Carr mentions that 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 “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.”
Significant advancements have always come at the price of affecting human behavior. This change, however, does not necessarily make us “stupid,” but rather allows us to shift to a different set of skills that might be required in the new context. To me this suggests that, although we can try to conserve old ways, we should not be mindless opponents of change.
Although I disagree with Carr’s opinion of the internet making us stupid, I do agree with him that as technological advances shape society, there might be a temptation to resist their effects. This, however, may lead to a life that is “lonely and in the end futile" as Carr puts it. If there is one safe bet, it is that technology will continue to shape society and our individual minds in the future. The point is to understand this change and guide it and ourselves down productive and humane paths.
Elad Gilboa is in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University. He received his BA in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2004, and his ME in Biomedical Engineering in 2009, from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology – Haifa, Israel. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering in the Graduate School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis.