Via Duke professor Cathy Davidson, I just came across this L. A. Times piece by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. (They're authors of The Invisible Gorilla. The essay aim at "digital alarmism," the argument that the Internet is making us stupider by "trap[ping] us in a shallow culture of constant interruption as we frenetically tweet, text and e-mail," both leaving us less time to read Proust, and rewiring our brains so we're incapable of paying serious attention to... anything.
Not true, they counter:
The basic plan of the brain's "wiring" is determined by genetic programs and biochemical interactions that do most of their work long before a child discovers Facebook and Twitter. There is simply no experimental evidence to show that living with new technologies fundamentally changes brain organization in a way that affects one's ability to focus. Of course, the brain changes any time we form a memory or learn a new skill, but new skills build on our existing capacities without fundamentally changing them. We will no more lose our ability to pay attention than we will lose our ability to listen, see or speak.
At the same time, they don't buy the idea that that concentrated attention is necessarily the royal road to wisdom: "spending 10 or more hours engrossed in a single text," the argue, "might not be the optimal regimen for building brainpower." And here's where things get really interesting:
Before the Computer Age, chess grandmasters used to study chess books before matches. But now they use laptops to review hundreds of games in rapid succession, in effect "downloading" into their minds knowledge that is customized for their next opponent. They access the knowledge as they need it, discarding it after the match, and the result is that today's grandmasters play the game better than their predecessors did. Visual perception and attention work the same way: They grant us conscious but temporary access to the information in our world that we need at any moment, then quickly discard it as we shift attention to other places, objects or events.
If we consider all the implications of this "just in time" approach to acquiring and using information, we may be forced to reevaluate the nature of knowledge, wisdom and intelligence. It may make less sense to focus on the capabilities of an individual person, and more sense to think about the individual plus the cloud of technology and information that he or she has access to at any given moment. This human-computer-Internet collective is more knowledgeable and arguably more intelligent than a single human being could be alone. By this view, as more and more information becomes available on the Internet, we become not dumber but smarter.
For every way the Internet gives us to waste time, there is a way to increase the scope and diversity of our knowledge and to work collectively on problems.
This strikes me as really smart, though a tad optimistic. It's a lot easier to get tangled up in the distractions of LOLcats than it is to find the equivalent of those chess games. Further, there's a long tradition in chess of this sort of review, and chess masters have long had extraordinary visual memories; so you could argue that having hundreds of games available on their laptops may make them play better, but it's an incremental and linear improvement, rather than a quantum leap.
At the same time, their line of reasoning suggests once again that the idea that the solution to the problem of digital distraction is to periodically switch off two thirds of the "human-computer-Internet collective" is incomplete and wrong: it's like cutting off healthy body parts and calling it weight loss.