Social, Subjective and Neurological Effects of Tool Use

Excerpted from a longer essay in New Left Review, which focuses on the work by Nicholas Carr, such as “The Shallows”.

Rob Lucas:

“Tool use, too, has strong neurological effects, with tools actually mapped by our neurons as if they were extensions of the body; thus violinists develop a demonstrably different brain structure to others. This was the capstone to Carr’s neuroscientific argument: if the science was right, the extensive daily Internet use to which our minds were increasingly submitted had to be inscribing significant new neurological patterns. With its quick request/response cycles, multisensory stimulation and informational overload, the Net was perfectly suited to retrain our brains into addictive new behaviours. Worse, it induced a state of distraction as the welter of data vied for our attention. In this state of overload, humans had to struggle to synthesize new experience, to convert it into the kind of meaningful long-term memory that was the basis of further understanding. What seemed to be getting lost were the neurological benefits of book reading: the capacities for sustained focus and linear, structured thinking. Numerous studies, many of which were systematically surveyed in 2005 by Diana DeStefano and Jo-Anne LeFevre, had served to indicate hypertext’s cognitive inferiority to the traditional printed page. [32] Rather than offering stimulating opportunities for the non-linear exploration of topics, as was once thought, the constant navigational possibilities encountered on a hypertext page added a significant cognitive overhead, as the reader was asked constantly to choose between the text before her and some other temptation. In one of his more tenuous rhetorical manoeuvres—reminiscent of McLuhan’s claim that electronic media were inducing a new state of tribalism—Carr suggested that we were being returned to a primordial state of distraction, regressing to a primitive state from which the Gutenberg press had previously freed us.

In addition to McLuhan, Mumford’s Technics and Civilization was an influence here. For Mumford as for McLuhan, technological developments marked out transformations of humanity itself, enhancing our faculties but altering them in the process. In this argument, what Carr termed ‘intellectual technologies’ in particular—map, clock, typewriter—both augmented our mental abilities and transformed them. Each carried an ‘intellectual ethic’, a hidden norm of mental functioning, that might be obscure to users—and even inventors—yet which shaped them nonetheless. As these technologies entered general use, passing down the generations, their intellectual ethics became ingrained in the structures of human experience, acquired as standard by each individual. The history of technology could thus be read as a history of transformations in the human mind. It was the clock, in Mumford’s thinking, which, by enabling an abstract conception of time, set in play the mathematization of reality and the beginnings of scientific modernity. Similarly, the map enabled an abstraction from the experience of space. For Carr, given what we now know about neuroplasticity, each of these technological transformations must have had implications at a neurological level—though this claim could not be falsified by digging up the brains of our ancestors.”

1 Comment Social, Subjective and Neurological Effects of Tool Use

  1. AvatarPoor Richard

    “Social, Subjective and Neurological Effects of Tool Use” are inevitable but not unambiguous. We teach ordinary (classical) reading skills to kids over a period of many years–we should anticipate a similar need for teaching hypertext and e-text reading skills (along with other technologies and “electronic arts”) on a formal basis. The fact that “digital natives” currently tend to outstrip their adult school teachers in such skills doesn’t mean their “ad hoc” proficiency can’t eventually be improved upon or that many potential “bad habits” and adverse social and neurological impacts can’t be mitigated or avoided.

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