Researcher: Technology might be returning us to Stone Age-thinking

By Meris Stansbury, Online Editor
November 1st, 2011

Carr said there needs to be a balance between deeper thinking and quick information gathering.

It’s not a new concept: Technology is changing the way we think. But one prominent researcher at a recent conference discussed a more controversial idea: Technology could be moving us away from innovation and progress, and closer to the Stone Age in terms of how we process information—a scary thought, considering the country’s desperate call for 21st-century thinking.

This disturbing theory comes from Pulitzer Prize nominee and New York Times bestseller Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain. And at the 15th annual American Association of School Librarians (AASL) conference in Minneapolis, Minn., Carr emphasized that it’s not just adults who should be worried.

“Schools and libraries are good places to see a snapshot of the cultural mindset on digital issues and change, and what they’re showing us is that instant access to information is everywhere,” said Carr.

Carr began his opening keynote by relating his own experiences with technology and the internet, saying he one day realized he had a harder time concentrating on one task.

“My mind wanted to jump around and not go word-to-word in a linear way. I thought: My mind wants to behave like the internet, like my smart devices,” he explained.

Carr then began to research why this brain pattern change could be happening. The answer, he found, lies in neuroscience and psychology.

According to Carr’s research, the invention of the internet is nothing new, in terms of history—objects like the map and the clock also changed the way our brains operate.

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12 Responses to “Researcher: Technology might be returning us to Stone Age-thinking”

This article is spot on. I am a technology teacher, and I actively promote the use of technology in education. In fact, my graduate degree is in educational technology – so I understand the issues.

All that said, I do believe we are headed for a basic sea change in modern man’d thinking patterns. Not all of those changes are bad, but the ones that are bad are VERY bad.

Consider the thinking patterns of our ancestors. For them, in order to make something, they first looked at the problem, estimated what it might take, set about getting the materials to make it, and then they drew from their material stock to put it together. One of the best examples of this can be found in Wilimington, NC. The WWII battleship North Carolina is now a floating museum. The builders of this ship used tools that we would consider primitive by today’s standards. They build armor that was overengineered to take direct hits. This created a heavier ship, which they then had to create bigger engines to power. The net result was a ship that endures to this day. It is big, heavy, and inefficient (by our standards) However, how did it perform? Well, even by today’s standards, it is a marvel of HUMAN thought on display.
Down in the fire control center (the place where the guns were aimed at targets) it took 18 men in a small room turning dials, plotting trigonometric arcs on paper, and allowing for the motion of the ship to hone in on targets and relay that dat back up to the gun turrets.
Remarkably, in the Vietnam War, when this ship was briefly returned to active service, the military experimented with the most modern electronics of that age and discovered that the original methods of aiming the guns was actually MORE accurate than the state of the art computers of the Vietnam era.
What I am saying is that there is a definite loss of human innovation that our reliance on computers has brought us. It isn’t so much that we have run out of ideas, its that we rely on proxies that are increasingly running our lives for us. The net result is that our society has fragmented into the technical haves and have nots. Those who are producers, and those (the majority) who are the consumers.
It doesn’t bode well for our culture, and we will be crushed by the weight of our own inventions if we don’t soon come to grips with how to educate our children in the classics while at the same time figuring out how to manage what we have created.
Shades of Frankenstein!

The other day I was meeting with a group of high school students. They were complaining about the content of their classes. Each one had virtually the same opinion that went something like this: Why do I have to learn any of this stuff when I can always ‘Google-it’ if I have to find out.

The fact that they shared this attitude (as well as the specifics of the viewpoint) underscores what my namesake Nicholas Carr is talking about in his book. While technology is helping us achieve greater heights in knowledge, it is also robbing us of the opportunity to become wiser.

I agree with this article. I’ve been working on computers for 11 years now all day 40 hours a week and I noticed a significant change in my concentration and analysis of information. My mind wanders a lot. I thought it was just me but my employee who is much younger than me noticed a change too.

November 2, 2011

Interesting topic… my wife – national board certified teacher x2 – was discussing with me how surprised we were that our college freshman daughter could not parse out the steps needed to attack a group study project (top 15 in her class).
We lamented the lack of opportunity in her high school curriculum to work in groups and attack real-world problems, and instead focused on ensuring success on the assessment tests.
Never did we think that providing her with a laptop, smartphone and broadband access 24×7 would also factor into it/cripple her.
I like the closing quote – so true for many of our life’s experiences.

Not only are our minds being saturated with information, but due to the ease of finding that information, we are finding it easier not to remember it. Isn’t this just the beginning of laziness? Then, with all of the electronic devices that are making their way into our day-to-day lives, we are depending too much on them to entertain, remind, teach, and think for us. The information is only the initial step in learning. Every learner or student must do something with the information for it to have any sort of value. The “doing” part is where people are falling short. Creativity and deeper meaning should be applied so that our minds can grow and build upon this reliance of technology. What happens when the lights go out? Will we have to discover how to do things unassisted again?

November 2, 2011

Interesting theory to say the least. As an educator for 21 years, 18 spent at the high school level and three spent at the middle school level, I have noticed the trend that recarr mentioned. I’ve actually had a few middle schoolers, supported by their parents, lodge complaints that students didn’t need to remember things since everything they needed was available over the internet. Numerous discussions have ensued in faculty meetings since addressing how to change this “just Google it” perception in students and parents.

November 3, 2011

This is a major issue, and it’s not an issue of luddites who don’t want to embrace change. When the change is increasingly leading us down paths that we don’t want to go, we owe it to ourselves and our society to step back and look at the consequences of what we’re doing. I’m a high school librarian and watching students work, they clearly are horrifically distracted by all of the technology. Focusing on anything for more than a few minutes seems to be a Herculean task. The tools of technology are not tools but life-sustaining appendages. And while many will tout that these students are “content creators” using their 21st century skills, I counter with the fact that they cannot write or express themselves well, and that they are far FAR more concerned about what is posted on Facebook, or who is texting them. The academic promise of the internet and Web 2.0 is not coming to fruition.

It’s been shown that screen time results in brain wave patterns similar to sleep – hence the zoned-out look so many of us have when we watch tv. Similar patterns though happen regarless of what the screen is – computer, tv, movie, smartphone, etc.

Cognitive psychology shows that you need to commit ceratain information to long-term memory in order to juggle higher-end thinking in your working mind. If we don’t learn information, if we don’t incorporate the vocabulary, facts, etc., into our long-term memory, it is no surprise when our students can’t do hard math problems because they can’t do simple multiplication or division without a calculator. They can’t write comparisons of historical events because they have no basic knowledge of the history involved to be able to go to a higher level.

We are on a precipice, and I fear we are going to fall, and hard.

Interesting comments. I teach 7th grade life science and am constantly urging my students to think deeply. We are working on the scientific method and the essential terms to master. I am having them commit to long term memory these key terms because without them they are lost. When we came to the term analysis the other day I told them this is one of the most important words to know and understand. It is not simply restating what the results of an experiment are – its looking at the whole experiment including the results, at data tables, graphs, observations and asking what is this telling me, why did I get the results I got? And it often means doing additional research to find out why. I am committed to a phrase I picked up in Developmental Designs training – “Go slow to go fast” . One could modify this to: “Go slow to think deeply”. I am making more time to have my students write down their thoughts in their science journals. I am also having them work more often in groups to discuss and ponder real world problems and come up with viable solutions to the same. They sometimes chomp at the bit but are beginning to see the value. We owe it to them to have them learn how to think about thinking!.

November 7, 2011

Case in point: I was not familiar with the term “Luddites” so naturally I went and looked it up… on Wikipedia.
Incidentally, as I was writing this short reply I took a phone call, responded to a question from a co-worker who poked their head into my office and replied to an email.

November 9, 2011

As for Googling it when you finally think you need it, what fuel will be available to your mind in the meantime? What will inform your thinking when the background information in your head doesn’t extent much beyond a desktop link to your chosen search engine?
November 14, 2011

Certainly, this finding underscores the importance of musical and a linguistic education – both of which offer no shortcuts but require digging deep and long to acquire skills.