How familiar is this? You're reading an online newspaper article on the Gulf oil spill, but before you get half through, you've clicked on links that lead you to fascinating pieces about marine biology, Sarah Palin, and Moby Dick. As you return to the original story, a pair of alerts tells you that a buddy has updated his Facebook page and your son has Tweeted something from the ballpark, which in turn links to a really cool video about Barry Bonds. Got to check those, of course, and by the time you return to the newspaper article, you've forgotten the point of the story and don't bother to finish it.
In an often-quoted, 2008 essay in The Atlantic, author Nicholas Carr asked "Is Google Making Us Stupid." At the time, my feeling was, yes, the Web can distract us and keep us from doing important work, but stupid? No way.
Now I'm not so sure. Carr has expanded his essay into a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that delves into the structure of the brain and the effect that constant stimulation has on our ability to concentrate, remember, reason and even empathise. As you probably assumed, he doesn't think the Internet is making us smarter.
"Over the last few years, I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory," he writes.
And Google, says Carr, is a big part of the problem.
Your Brain on Google
"Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention - and it's in Google's economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible," he writes. "Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction."
Before I go further, I should say that The Shallows is not an anti-technology rant or Luddite manifesto. Indeed, if the book has a very obvious failing, it's the lack of direction or solutions for readers who agree with the conclusion. Carr, a prolific blogger and commentator on technology, is hardly pining for some golden age of contemplative intellectualism, and notes that major new communication-related technologies, from Gutenberg's press to television are disruptive and invariably met with cries of alarm.
Consider this complaint made more than 400 years ago: "One of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world," the English writer Barnaby Rich moaned in 1600.
If Carr had only talked about the Internet and digital technology as distractions, his book might still be interesting, but not very significant. It's no great insight to realise that texting while driving is stupid, or that responding to every Tweet and clicking on every link will keep you from getting anything done.
Carr marshals a good deal of evidence drawn from recent, and not so recent experimental work, which shows, he believes, that the use of digital technology is actually changing not just what we do, but how we think.
He refers us to the work of Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA development psychologist who studies the use of media and its effect on learning: "Every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes, including abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination."
Or as Carr puts it: "We're becoming, in a word, shallower."
Experts Disagree On Carr's Thesis
To be sure, there is experimental work that points in a different direction. In a rather unfriendly piece in the New York Times Book Review last month, Jonah Lehrer cited a different set of experts from UCLA who "found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the [brain], at least when compared with reading a book-like text."
Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, then went on to contradict Carr's major thesis, saying: "Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn't making us stupid -- it's exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter."
But does it?
Carr argues that our brains are "plastic," that is they are modified by the tasks we undertake. "When we're constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be online, our brains are unable to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give depth and distinctiveness to our thinking. We become mere signal-processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory."
Even the use of links that give readers access to useful information not in the text has a downside, Carr believes. Erping Zhu, a researcher at the University of Michigan, tested reading comprehension by having people read the same online article, but she varied the number of links included in the passage. She then tested the subjects, and found that comprehension declined as the number of links increased. Readers were forced to devote more and more of their attention and brain power to evaluating the links and deciding whether to click on them
As a nation, Americans are prone to believe that technology can fix almost anything, and that the downsides of technology can always be managed. And there's no doubt, at least in my mind, that we've benefited tremendously from the use of digital technology. I'll never want to drive to the library to look up the odd fact when I can find it on Google in seconds.
I'm certainly in no position to weigh the contradictory scientific evidence about the relationship of digital technology and cognitive development. But my own experience as a heavy (and often heavily distracted) user of Web-based technology tells me Carr is on the right track. At the very least, his book is worth reading with your iPhone turned off and your Tweets on hold.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at email@example.com.
Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.