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Internet: Technology and its discontents

Jaron Lanier surveys four studies probing the vexed nexus of mind and digisphere.

Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains

  • Susan Greenfield
Rider: 2014. 9781846044304 | ISBN: 978-1-8460-4430-4

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

  • Daniel J. Levitin
Dutton: 2014. 9780525954187 | ISBN: 978-0-5259-5418-7

The Impulse Society: What's Wrong With Getting What We Want?

  • Paul Roberts
Bloomsbury: 2014. 9781408830468 | ISBN: 978-1-4088-3046-8

The Glass Cage: Automation and Us

  • Nicholas Carr
W. W. Norton: 2014. 9780393240764 | ISBN: 978-0-3932-4076-4

Digital technology is remaking the cognitive environment in which human brains develop and function. This swift revolution is inevitably sparking much hard thinking. Books by neuroscientists Susan Greenfield and Daniel Levitin, and writers Nicholas Carr and Paul Roberts, propose either adaptation to the changes — self-help strategies to compensate for emerging cognitive misalignments — or critiques of the overall transformation.

Credit: Illustrations by Darren Hopes

Greenfield's Mind Change takes the latter approach. It proposes that global climate change can serve as a useful metaphor for how human minds — our inner environments — are, in her view, being recklessly altered by digital technologies. Greenfield argues that because the human brain is remarkably plastic in youth, it is not unreasonable to ask how recently introduced, ubiquitous digital designs (such as those of social networks or reading tablets) might affect brain development. The acquisition of speech and reading can affect human brain architecture, but there has been little precedent for the kind of sudden, uniform, pervasive change in children's cognitive environments posed by these technologies. How might they affect the sense of identity or organic memory, for instance? Although she sometimes seems to push her argument beyond the reach of current research, Greenfield asks key questions — such as whether the next generation will think less critically than their forebears. And she broadly outlines the kind of research and policy agenda needed to address such haunting unknowns.

She occasionally veers into alarmism, for instance when discussing speculative links between the apparent rise in autism and the rise in the use of particular digital environments. However, some of Greenfield's caution may be justified. The neuroscience and cognitive-science communities that overlap with digital-technology developments often rely on the technology industry for support or cooperation, so it is especially important that they are not swayed by that industry's extreme enthusiasms. For all its faults, Mind Change is an important presentation of an uncomfortable minority position. It should be read by technologists in particular, as a check on self-congratulation.

By contrast, in The Organized Mind, Levitin takes the self-help approach. Accepting the design of information technology and today's information deluge as givens, he explores better brain function in that context. Our networked age often confounds the human mind, he notes, because of the kinds of cognitive quirks investigated by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and his late colleague Amos Tversky — notably Kahneman's idea of two brain systems, one 'quick and dirty' and the other slower and more reasoned. Levitin's strategy for overcoming such quirks is a set of tricks. To bypass poor intuitions about statistics, for instance, he suggests assessing data using a simple four-fold diagram.

Credit: Illustrations by Darren Hopes

Levitin's presentation is sensible and actionable, but I suspect that his audience is the sub-population residing between the extremes of technical ability. This group holds much of society's money and power: our highly technical society is for the most part guided by semi-technical people.

Carr's The Glass Cage — a meditation on automation, from apps-for-everything to self-driving cars — asks at the start how we should define a human being in such an era. Does automation change the sense of how people act, learn, or find value in their lives and each other? Carr tells contemporary and historical tales of technologists and entrepreneurs dripping with hubris, such as aviation wizard Wilbur Wright, and of people struggling with a sense that they are becoming denatured by a reliance on automation.

Carr can be understood as part of a literary movement that does not reject technologies. Rather, it rejects ceding what Carr calls “choices about the texture of our daily lives” to technologists and their businesses. That stance is a tightrope walk: one must move forward, succumbing neither to Luddite tendencies nor to the seductions of hot technological trends.

Automation in the age of cloud computing is often a fake front. Real people, anonymized and devalued, are the sources of the 'big data'.

Carr is one of our most accomplished tightrope walkers. However, The Glass Cage does fall prey to a flawed conceit. Automation in the age of cloud computing is often a fake front. It is real people, anonymized and unvalued, who are the sources of the 'big data' that allow cloud algorithms to function. Automatic language translation is made possible only through daily sampling of human translators' work. Celebrating how people are contributing to technology in new ways could address some of the problems Carr decries, whether economic or cognitive.

For The Impulse Society, Roberts draws on the work of research psychologists such as Walter Mischel, who has studied delayed gratification. More lament than prescription, the book considers the many ways in which technologies encourage an infantile desire for immediate gratification. What is most striking about Robert's critique is its panoramic sweep. During the financial crises of the past decade, for instance, an urge for an instant 'hit' cropped up among individual borrowers keen on home ownership, lenders set on unbelievable deals, and shareholders eager for soaring security valuations. At every level people were disabled by a common infatuation with false gold proffered by digital networks.

Roberts trips a bit towards the end of his book: he calls for a resurgence of traditional community as an alternative to the modern trend towards impatience. The book's ultimate programme seems sentimental and ill-matched to the theatre in which the troubles arise.

Taken together, these four books reveal a frontier of human experience. We are rapidly changing society, and in the course of it potentially laying our brains open to change. We must now become both competent and wise in our powers — not simply resisting or embracing new media technologies, but becoming instead more self-aware and discerning in relation to them.

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Lanier, J. Internet: Technology and its discontents. Nature 513, 313–314 (2014).

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