In 2008, the Atlantic Magazine published perhaps the most widely read and influential article on the impact of the web on cognition - the infamous "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", written by tech writer Nicholas Carr.
Carr wrote about a wide spread realization that many had lost their ability to fully concentrate on long, thoughtful written works. He eventually concluded that heavy Internet usage was to blame.
Carr has now followed up his original piece with a book "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains", expanding on the points he made in 2008. In her review of the book, "Yes, the Internet Is Rotting Your Brain", Laura Miller writes that since 2008, neuroscientists have performed and reviewed important studies on the effects of multitasking, hyperlinks, multimedia and other information-age innovations on human brain function - and indeed, "The more of your brain you allocate to browsing, skimming, surfing and the incessant, low-grade decision-making characteristic of using the Web, the more puny and flaccid become the sectors devoted to "deep" thought." Time to shut off the computer.
Personally, after reading all of this, I am of two minds. On the one hand, I grew up pre-home computer. By any standards, I am well read - in three languages. I excelled in academics and attended Ivy League schools both as an undergrad and a grad student. And I will admit that I often joke with my twins, that had I been born in 1993, (like them), there is absolutely NO WAY that I would be as well read, or as broadly cultured as I am today. Given my geeky tendencies, and my love of gaming - I would probably have spent all the time I devoted to books playing World of Warcraft, trolling Second Life, and trying to hack into - well - someplace I shouldn't. I probably would never have achieved the grades, or the SAT scores to get admitted to Yale. I would be a social embryo.
On the other hand, I am old enough to remember myriads of "TV Rots Your Brain" articles that predicted not only the extinction of all intellect, but the downfall of Western Civilization. Yet somehow, while I watched the "The Brady Bunch", "Mission:Impossible", "Dark Shadows", and the like for hours on end - I still managed to read "War and Peace", "Les Miserables", and "Don Quixote", in English, French, and Spanish.
So maybe I am not giving myself enough credit - and even with the availability of the net, I would still have read the classics and engaged in other deep cognitive pursuits.
And then, I have still another thought. Do you know how to hunt with a spear, and skin your kill? Of course not. Do you know how to hand sew a needlepoint sampler, or write a letter using a quill pen? Probably not. As technology and the world evolves, skill sets become extinct, replaced by others. Would you like to live in an era where sewing and hand calligraphy were valued? But wait - in the 18th century there was no anesthesia, or antibiotics. No way to phone home, or hop a plane to Paris.
No one yet has measured what I have gained by being able to instantly access and read Carr's original article on The Atlantic's web site - two years after it was published. Couldn't do that in 1980 - 0r 1990 - or even in 2000.
I'll take my chances on the Internet rotting my brain in the 21st century.