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What is the internet doing to our brains?

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Sunday, 24 Feb 2013, 07:53


Don't ask this guy!

Carr is no neuroscientist - three decades ago he took a first degree in English Literature (Dartmouth College) followed by a Masters in American Literature (Harvard). He should stick to what he knows.

Studying H809 at the moment we are stripping back research papers to understand their construction and validity. It doesn't take much reading of a book like the one above to realise that it is seriously flawed. It beggars belief that it ever made it infront of the Pulitzer Prize judging panel.

As a book it is a remarkably satisfactory artifact.

Even in paper back the cover has a wonderful fine grittiness to it - like sand. I even open the book and breathed it in. For this experience 10/10. All publishers, especially those online, need to take trouble with the Art Work too. Of course the plaudits sing out 'buy me, buy me' but as reviews go they are about as helpful as one liners on the latest blockbuster.

Carr writes well enough, not quite Bill Bryson, but an easy and intelligent read, an amble through the relevant technologies to the present day.

Carr can be accepted as a cultural and social historian, his mistake is to want to want bash this evidence into shape to support his conception of the Internet and its dangers. It is like saying that ‘rural man’ is different to ‘urban man’, that the motivations, pace and opportunities are different. Whilst this may be true, the sorts of changes to the brain that Carr suggest are not occurring.

Carr's conception of mind is both out of date and misconstrued.

What he suggests in relation to the mind is twaddle on so many levels it feels no more possible or desirable to refute than the enthusiastic chatter of a child. Carr doesn't strike me as someone who easily persuaded when he has something wrong.

  • everything touches our minds
  • everyone is different
  • not everyone has access to the Internet
  • even those who do use it for a myriad of different things in a multitude of ways.
  • years of solitary confinement, or years in the trenches on the Western Front affect different people in different ways.

When you take a set of encyclopedias and ask, 'how do I make this digital?' you get a Microsoft Encarta CD.

When you take the philosophy of an encyclopedia and ask, 'how does digital change our engagement with this?' you get Wikipedia.

How does this relate to e-learning?

It strikes me that much of that learning online has a considerable distance to go in terms of realising the potential of 'electronically enhanced' learning, that we are 'reading' for subjects and supervised by the institution and tutors very much in the style of a Microsoft Encarta CD.

Perhaps a virtual world is the way forward?

Is Carr's problem his infatuation with the past? He is the critic in 1904 looking at the demise of the horse and carriage and writing about the motor-vehicle from the perspective of blocked highways. He is only seeing one aspect of what the new technology has done with reading - reading is either no less relevant, or irrelevant. For millenia before the written word, and for thousands of years since, we have got by and learnt without the need to read from a book. There are better ways to learn - on the fly from eachother.

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The Shallows - Nicholas Carr - and why you shouldn't bother reading it

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Saturday, 23 Feb 2013, 07:43


This isn't a promotion; I'm reading it so that you don't have to.

It has very little to say on the Internet. Rather it is a potted, amateurish and personable ramble through the history of communications and communications technologies from cunieform to the Rubix cube.

I fell asleep in chapter five.

Not that I'm incapable of 'deep reading' or seeing a book through to the end. I'm a sucker for John Grisham. I fell asleep and dreamt I was reading his book on a chair lift and forgot to get off at the top and started coming back down again - if this happens they have to stop the thing and wind you back. This was a bad dream for Nicholas Carr - the dream was telling me to drop this dreadful distraction. I have proper reading to do on webscience, neuroscience and e-learning. The kind that is written by academics, published in journals, found in the OU library then gathered up in RefWorks for later consumption.

Carr is one of those irritating humanities MAs who believes that Plutarch and Socrates have more insight on the Web and neuroscience and psychology then the leading academics of our age from the OU, OII or WebSciences at SOTON. In fact anyone who might disagree with him has of course been ignored.

I feel as if I am doing one of those party games where you have to eat as many cheese biscuits as possible. The only satisfying thing is tearing out the pages I have read and putting them in the Guinea-pig. For this I am grateful for not having a digital version.

Still, I'll hopefully be able to convince people to stop quoting Carr as the next Messiah by pointing out why and how he is beating his own drum in a one sided fashion on every page.

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What's the Internet doing to our brains? Not much, i'd say, but I'm not trying to sell you a book.

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Thursday, 21 Feb 2013, 03:30

The Shallows : What the Internet is doing to our Brains?

Nicholas Carr

Love it or hate it the Internet is here for keeps.

I had hoped to get an objective view from Carr but 'The Shallows' fails to say what the Internet is doing to our brains.

I would love to time travel and stop my ancestors from what they were doing 35,000 years ago so that I could have shared with them the insight that making stone tools would alter their brains forever.

What's different? Not much.

Carr lacks the credentials, training or inclination to answer the question he poses. I'd ask a cross disciplinary team that would include a neuroscientist, webscientist and psychologist.

'The Shallows' is an apt title as the thinking lacks depth.

Look up a the authors Carr cites and you find they say as much to counter the arguments as support them, take the Nobel prize winning Eric Kandel for example who on the one hand identified the 'plasticity of the brain', but also showed that through habituation a sort of boredom sets in – it is hardly the case that Google is taking over our brains as Carr would have us believe.

There is no research, rather an amble through the literature.

As an mental indulgence I am reading the book and putting it through my mental shredder. In print form only makes checking references somewhat tedious. In eBook forms others would be questiong the text more often and with far great ease. What I dislike the most is how he misrepresents the work of others. The Nobel prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel, for example, is quoted selectively to support Carr's view that our plastic brains are being permanently set out of kilter by Google and the Internet.

I'll post the odd gobbet here, the rest in my external blog my mind bursts

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Can a popular book sit on the fence? Academic vs. popularist

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Tuesday, 19 Feb 2013, 18:43

I wonder if the difference between the book selling 'voices' of e-learning are to academics what pop music is to classical music.

They make a great fuss, sing and dance, but lack substance. They are popular and sometimes wrong. Marc Prensky and the Digital Natives compared to Martin Weller's Ring Cycle?!

In 'The Shallows' Nicholas Carr goes out of his way to select anecdotes and references to prop up his thesis that Google is making us stupid. The wise, though less popular and academic approach would have been to make the case both ways with equal effort, to argue that Google is making is smart.

The two propostions would make for a reasonable and reasoned debate. There are two books in it.

Can a popular book sit on the fence?

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Marshall McLuhan

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'After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man - the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media'.

Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man, 1964

Change a few words and this could have been written last week about the Internet. Someone will be witing this kind of copy for the press, even getting books published in this kind of vien - indeed 'The Shallows' by Nicholas Carr is one of a handful that do this. 'The Clue Train Manifesto' is another. Populist bunkum.

Whilst Marshall McLuhan was well read, what he had to say was sensationalist at the time, and can be dismissed - that or you take what he said and state the the OPPOSITE is how it has turned out.

Fifty years ago authors like McLuhan thought we'd lose the ability to remember because everything was in print and being put onto electronic formats. Today authors like Carr - an MA in American and English Literature hardly makes him a credible webscientist, and Gordon Bell at Microsoft are doing it again - claiming revolution and radical change. It won't happen. It didn't in the past and why should it today. Human life is too transitory, these technologies evolve and are taken up in the context of their age at a snail's pace.




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