Friday, 22 August 2008

digital uses more neurons


There is a lot frothing up on how the Google Generation (which is actually a very misleading idea) is full of a bunch of cognitively myopic and depthless individuals just skimming from one digital distraction to another. And somewhere in that there is probably some truth for some people.

But the assumption that the endpoint of new web behaviours is neuromush is wrong. History teaches us that any new technology brings with it a grimly predictable cohort of detractors. It also teaches us that for every game-changing innovation - the alphabet, writing, printing - humans didn't end up mentally crippled but enriched, seriously enriched, in fact.

That's why - in the same spirit as Everything Bad is Good for You - it's nice amid all this gloom to know there are some historically alert digital optimists. Digital culture is such a massive improvement in many aspects to 'receive' culture*. As Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams put it in Wikinomics (p.47),
Rather than being passive recipients of mass consumer culture, the Net Gen spend time searching, reading, scrutinizing, authenticating, collaborating and organising.
So in that respect, Google is not really making us stupid. Perhaps, quite the opposite: all this new media may cause more cognitive sweat than the media before it.

Rewind ten years, people would read a book or an article and that was that. A few might make notes. Only a handful would write about it and publish, and typically on a professional basis. Back to today, and the same book or article generates way more thought than it would have done a decade earlier. Digital culture uses more neurons.

Added to that, what is also omitted from the view that the new represents a mental downgrade is that while we are outsourcing certain brain functions to silicon we are gaining literally superhuman abilities in the process. The critics focus on what is lost and ignore what is gained, like memory.

As Faris has neatly put it,
I think increasingly, our brains are less like databases and more like index servers
And it's better that way because actually I can store more, not less. My memory isn't atrophied by the internet, it's augmented. And that's the mark of some of the most transformational technologies: they extend our ability to keep information alive by outsourcing it.

*This is clumsy. Some digital stuff is obviously sit-back too.

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