If Nicholas Carr is correct in his recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, you will not read this entire blog post. The main idea of the book is that the internet causes our brains to be easily distracted and also makes us less able to learn deep ideas as we skim more and read deeply less. The book digs into the science of how the human brain learns. The brain has “plasticity” – meaning that it will adjust to the activities that it does often, similar to what our muscles do. Carr lays out the history of communication from the first written world, through the mass production of books, to the internet age and analyzes the impact that these technologies have on society and the human brain. As he points out in the book, for every new technology, there have been those that have said that it will doom the way that we think or take away the very things that make us human. But this time, according to Carr, there are real issues.
The Internet Distracts People with…SQUIRREL
Like the dog Dug in the movie Up! (SQUIRREL!) – internet users can find it hard to stay focused. While I agree that almost any repetitive activity can potentially become addictive, I believe that most people can take control of the tools that they use for communication rather than letting them control you. Even in pre-internet days, the draw of interrupting technologies was there – do you finish the task that you’re working on, or answer the ringing phone or watch TV (or even read a book)? The brain can get so used to a stimulus that it will make you crave it when it’s not there – this even affected Dilbert back in 1996.
Reading vs. Skimming
If you’ve read this far, congratulations! In the age of the internet, most people skim rather than read. The book describes that people read in an “F” shape, that is that they read the first line or two, then partial lines and eventually just start scanning down the page. As a blogger, I try and keep my posts short (500 words for most posts or 1000 for a deeper discussion) and also try and break up the text visually with some bolding, italics, headers and photos. Carr also says that even the basic web format with hyperlinks is very distracting. Each hyperlink that you reach makes you think about clicking it and if you do will you ever get back to where you started (for this article, I put some links at the bottom rather than throughout the text). There is fascinating research in the book which explains how memories are created and the science behind short term and long term memory.
While in general I feel that Carr is a bit of a pessimist about technology, I do believe that he is correctly raising an alarm on this topic. The argument in the book is that as we skim more and rely on the internet to store information rather than our brains that our brains will have less context for problem solving or deep thoughts and that we become shallower. Mass production of books brought learning to everyone, the internet increases information flow, but potentially we understand and internalize less.
There are a few ways that we can still absorb information in the internet age. Of course the first is to read deeply – I’d recommend picking up The Shallows if you’ve found this discussion interesting (I think that it should be required reading at colleges). Another way is to write; the process of organizing your thoughts and translating them into words helps your memory and critical thinking. A third way is to have deep discussions with friends and family – nothing like a lively debate to get the brain going. A final way is just to give yourself some free time to think – where new information isn’t flooding in so that you can sort and process what you’ve brought in.
I consider myself a pragmatic optimist on the new technologies. Like some of the optimists in the articles listed below, I believe that the internet age brings proliferation of information and opportunity for a globally connected community. It’s the core of the company that I work at now.
Where do you stand? Are you an internet optimist? Do you believe that there is validity in Carr’s positions? Will the internet turn people into shallow shells that can’t function without computers?
Here are some related articles that I’d recommend:
Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society by Adam Thierer (Adam also reviews The Shallows)
I Know I’m Not the Only Internet Optimist… by Andy McAfee
Carr’s article from The Atlantic: Is Google Making Us Stupid?
A couple of posts of mine discussing similar topics after reading a book by Neil Postman
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PBS-TV’s MotorWeek visited Intel headquarters recently. Steven Chupnick wanted to learn how the tiny, mighty Intel Atom processor can help automakers stay in step with consumer trends. He met with Staci Palmer, director of Intel’s In-Vehicle Infotainment, Embedded and Communications Group, who talked about how computer technology can connect autos to the Internet to bring information, entertainment and even maintenance services anywhere the auto goes.
Here’s a quick video and photo slideshow I captured while taking Steve around the Intel Headquarters.
During the recent Intel Developer Forum, Intel CEO Paul Otellini showed that the Atom processor is driving advanced technology into new areas from hospital patient monitoring to avionics applications to audio systems, including Harman International Industries, the provider of a wide range of audio and infotainment products for vehicles.
Harman International recently announced new in-car devices based on the Atom core that will enable full Internet access, 3-D navigation, brilliant graphics and high-speed wireless connectivity.
In Otellini’s IDF keynote presentation, he pointed to a chart showing how fast in-vehicle infotainment systems are growing – a 17 percent range even during a time of depressed automotive sales. He pointed out that many of the automotive manufacturers and the suppliers to that industry have come together on is a new alliance called GENIVI, which is focused on creating interoperable standards for in-vehicle infotainment across the automotive industry.
Paul revealed that Intel with working with Harman to put Atom-based systems into BMW and Daimler. He said that Daimler will put it into their S-Class and C-Class series starting around 2012, and BMW is developing a cross-platform, which means it goes across all their models, as an option for 2012 and beyond.
I’ve heard talk and seen demostrations about embedding Internet technologies in cars since I joined Intel in 2000. I even got to work with Mad Mike from the then-MTV show “Pimp My Ride” in 2005 when we built an Intel Centrino mobile technology computer system into a Chrysler 300C. But what we learned at IDF in September was that we’re seeing momentum behind building standards-based technology that can — well, hopefully — someday become standard in new cars.
I’ll keep watching this and learning more about progress as the auto industry buckles up and gets back into shape after a very difficult time in 2009. Meantime, here are some Intel resources:
- Intel’s In-Vehicle Infotainment Web page here
- Intel’s In-Vehicle Infotainment related stories being collected on Delicious
- The Intel Embedded Group’s quest to put the Internet inside 15 Million intelligent, connected devices
I spent the day yesterday with a room filled with 200-300 really smart people. Not just a little smart, but truly fabulously smart. There were finalists from our global innovation idea contest, distinguished engineers (our elite force), a fellow (turbo-elite), a few authors, a couple of CEOs, and in total, hand-selected, innovation-minded representatives from every major functional area at the company.
If that wasn’t intimidating enough, I was asked to present. It was all fine and good until the morning of the event when I told my 8th grader why I was rushing off so early. “My goodness,” I thought to myself, “what have I done?!”
In my last blog, I shared a bit of what I discussed. The fun part of the presentation, for me, was when others joined me on the stage to share a story of something they witnessed at the company by way of an innovation. I asked them to highlight the ingredients that came after someone having “a great idea” — the “Passion” and working toward “Success” parts.
Some times you have to be a bit of a Pest!
The first story to be shared came from a non-engineer, Tom Broderick, a Director at EMC involved with Business strategy and our global Centers of Excellence. His story was about a radically new pricing strategy for EMC in 2003 (think depth of recession.) He said the team presenting this idea was shot down 2 or 3 times by the executive committee at the company. Each time, they tweaked the plan, build their network of supporters, and essentially, refused to give up. Their conviction, passion, and yes, smart work sold the strategy. The result? It transformed the industry pricing model and, looking at EMC’s dramatic rise in revenue from 2003 – 2008 (roughly $6 billion to $15 Billion!), I’d say it had an impact on the company, too.
Some times you have to be Master Networker!
The second story to be shared came from Barry Burke. He couldn’t list just one innovation idea he witnessed. He recited a long list of mainstream products at EMC which would never would have seen the light of day had it not been for …. “the idea generator forgetting it was his/her idea and making it the idea and passion of others.” He said it was the network of believers that drove those ideas over the finish line and into the giant product success circle that they live in today.
Some times you have to put yourself On a Limb in the interest of making it great!
A third story came from David Spencer, about a work in process. He told of an engineering team working on a stealth product. One of the members of the team suspected that something wasn’t quite right and could be better. He confided in a senior member of an engineering team not associated the project. This senior person had a full plate, and was on an aggressive schedule managing another product release. But, in true EMC fashion, he listened, thought about it, and he, too, suspected there could be a better way. Tireless work began to unfold in parallel. The work is still in play. We don’t know how it will end. One definition for sure is the opinion of the senior engineer. He said he hasn’t had this much fun at work in years!!
———- Oh that Feeling When Someone Connects! ——-
A highlight for me was when a senior engineer and finalist of the global innovation idea contest quoted my presentation during he panel he sat on. He said we need more of the culture I discussed — one filled with passion and connections. As a global and wide-reaching company it is more important than ever that we support one another, know what one another is working on to move FASTER! He also pointed to the opportunity to eliminate waste from projects that get done, that others don’t know about and ultimately get under-utilized.
———————– A surprise! ———————–
Another highlight was meeting EMCer David Elmes, who works in API support for our eRoom product. He told me he was an English major and we started talking about EMC ONE, our internal collaboration network, and how we found some photographers there recently. Ends up he, too, is a professional photographer. He asked if he could take some photos. Ends up, he took the one at the top of this blog and many more amazing shots. He took this one of me too …
An amazing day. Lots of connections and inspiration, and family building. At the cocktail hour that followed the day there was even more!
——————- Talk Back —————————
Personal connections, uber smart people/engineers. Do they mix?
Is more needed, or is everything just fine thank you?
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