I'm just getting around to Carl Wilkinson's recent Telegraph essay on writers "Shutting out a world of digital distraction." It's about how Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby and others deal with digital distraction, which for writers is particularly challenging. Successful writing requires a high degree of concentration over long periods, but the Internet can be quite useful for doing the sort of research that supports imaginative writing (not to mention serious nonfiction). Add in communicating with agents, getting messages from fans, and the temptation to check your Amazon rank, and you have a powerful device.
Unfortunately, the piece also has a couple paragraphs featuring that mix of technological determinism and neuroscience that I now regard as nearly inevitable. Editors seem to require having a section like this:
the internet is not just a distraction – it’s actually changing our brains, too. In his Pulitzer Prize-nominated book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember (2010), Nicholas Carr highlighted the shift that is occurring from the calm, focused “linear mind” of the past to one that demands information in “short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better”….
Our working lives are ever more dominated by computer screens, and thanks to the demanding, fragmentary and distracting nature of the internet, we are finding it harder to both focus at work and switch off afterwards.
“How can people not think this is changing your brain?” asks the neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University. “How can you seriously think that people who work like this are the same as people 20 or 30 years ago? Whether it’s better or worse is another issue, but clearly there is a sea change going on and one that we need to think about and evaluate.... I’m a baby boomer, not part of the digital-native generation, and even I find it harder to read a full news story now. These are trends that I find concerning.”
As with Nick Carr's recent piece, Katie Roiphe's piece on Freedom, everything Sven Birkets has written since about 1991, and the rest of the "digital Cassandra" literature (Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons called it "digital alarmism"), I think the problem here is that statements like these emphasize the flexibility of neural structure in a way that ironically diminishes our sense of agency and capacity for change. The argument works like this:
- The world is changing rapidly.
- Our media are changing very rapidly.
- Brains adapt to their (media) environments.
- Therefore our brains must be changing very rapidly.
- These changes are beyond our control.
I don't want to argue, pace Stephen Poole, that this is merely neurobollocks (though I love that phrase), (Nor do i want to single out Baroness Greenfield, who's come in for lots of criticism for the ways she's tried to talk about these issues.)
All I want to argue is that 1-4 can be true, but that doesn't mean 5 must be true as well.
Technological determinism is not, absolutely not, a logical consequence of neuroplasticity.
It's possible to believe that the world is changing quickly, that our brains seek to mirror these changes or adapt to them in ways that we're starting to understand (but have a long way to go before we completely comprehend), and lots of this change happens without our realizing it, before we're aware of it, and becomes self-reinforcing.
But-- and this is the important bit, so listen up-- we also have the ability of observe our minds, to retake control of the direction in which they develop, and to use neuroplasticity for our own ends.
Because we can observe our minds as work, we can draw on a very long tradition of practice in building attention and controlling our minds-- no matter what the world is doing. Yes, the great Jeff Hammerbacher line, "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads" is absolutely true*, but when all is said and done, even Google hasn't taken away free will.
We can get our minds back. It's just a matter of remembering how.
*And can even be represented in graphical form.