Is Google making us stupid? This is the question U.S. writer Nicholas Carr asked two years ago in an article for The Atlantic Monthly. Today, the answer is clear: Yes, obviously. So what can we download to fix it?
Ironically enough, it is software designers themselves who have come up with the most viable solution to date.
Freedom is a new downloadable software that, for the price of $10 (U.S.), disables the Internet or social-networking portions of your computer for specified chunks of time. It is a tool designed to help us get smarter by making our computers temporarily dumb. Better yet, it might actually help us get some work done.
But before we focus on the solution, let's look at the problem. The Internet may not be turning our brains to mush (as my mother warned me too much TV would do growing up in the eighties), but it is undoubtedly changing the way we think.
As HAL, the sad supercomputer in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, lamented when his circuits were being dismantled (and Carr reiterated in his piece): "Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it."
Can't we all feel it?
Growing up, I was a reader. I mean a seriously nerdy, sit-in-the-shade-inhaling-Judy-Blume-novels-while-the-other-kids-played-Red-Rover-and-discovered-their-sexuality kind of reader. That this made me mildly anti-social now seems entirely beside the point. I've chosen to be a writer, a profession that dovetails nicely with an aversion to sustained human contact. The point is, reading all those books made me smarter. I know it did because … wait, what was I saying again?
Oh, right, reading. I still read, of course, but not like I used to. After a few pages, my mind wanders, I get distracted and restless, the thought of inboxes, updates and Twitter feeds begins to nag. Before, I could luxuriate uninterrupted for hours, gobbling whole books in a single sitting, comprehending and digesting lengthy essays full of complex ideas, whereas these days - HA! Sorry, my friend Marni just posted the cutest photos of her cat on Facebook.
Anyway, Carr says this collective ADD of ours is all Google's fault. In his new book based on that Atlantic article, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, he puts his finger on the dark irony of the tech age: In the search for unlimited information and connectivity, we have also provided ourselves with an infinite scope for distraction. Or as Carr puts it: "When carried into the realm of the intellect, the industrial ideal of efficiency poses a potentially mortal threat to the pastoral ideal of contemplative thought."
Carr isn't saying technology is evil - he's saying that sometimes, in order to think properly, we need to cut ourselves off. In other words, a well-rounded mind requires a delicate balance of speed and deliberation.
"There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden," he writes. "We need to work in Google's 'world of numbers,' but we also need to be able to retreat to Sleepy Hollow."
The problem is that our digital-era brains, inundated with a constant stream of information, are now on hyperactive overdrive. This explains why so many successful people seem to have the attention span of gnats. Their brains are literally being rewired by the technology required to do their Very Important Jobs.
Which is where Freedom comes in.
Writers of fiction and poetry - perhaps the most contemplative of all professionals - have been coming up with homespun versions of this Internet-hobbling system ever since cyberspace emerged to haunt our attention spans. As an occasional novelist myself, I can tell you that if you think reading a book is difficult these days, just try writing one. Faced with a faraway deadline and no reason to leave the house or pick up the phone, the Web poses a mortal threat to the imagination and focus of people who make things up for a living.
At a recent writers' retreat, I overheard a group of novelists discussing their methods of cutting themselves off. One chose to write in a dingy, unwired café instead of his nice clean home office, while another, who earned his living as a journalist, had two separate desks in different rooms in his flat - one with an Internet plug-in and another without. A one-time Booker Prize winner admitted that, when her writing was going badly, she made her husband disable the wireless box and hide the key in a different spot in the house every day, "so that if I need to send an e-mail to my agent I can call him and find it."
It was as if they were recovered junkies talking about the elaborate coping mechanisms they use to get through each day clean (there's an app for that too, by the way).
And I knew exactly how they felt.
If it weren't for Freedom, you wouldn't be reading this column right now, as I would never have written it. Instead, I would have been giggling at photos of my friend's adorable three-year-old daughter making lasagna rolls on her mommy food blog. It's not my fault - that's just what happens to your brain on the Internet.