Science Has Caught Up with Nick Carr


An interesting article in today’s Boston Globe about how the Internet is changing the way our brains work further supports two ideas that keep showing up in this blog. The first is that we learn by doing and what we learn depends on what we do routinely. The second is that the technology we employ habitually changes what we “know,” but in the sense that what we “know” is reflected in what we do. “Knowing” here refers to cognitive structures that we embody through practices that, in turn produce our routine behaviors. As I have noted before, the idea of “doing is knowing and knowing is doing” is one of the early outcomes of the work of Maturana and Varela and the way they speak about human consciousness and cognition.

The gist of the article is that the widespread of the Internet to search for information is changing our memory capacity so we retain less and use the Internet as a sort of recall mechanism. Nick Carr wrote a convincing book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, prior to these results (2010) with similar implications. It is important that science establish facts like this, but, if one follows the earlier work of Humberto Maturana these findings are not a surprise; rather they are to be expected.

The Globe's source is a paper just published in Science. The abstract tells the important part of the author’s story.

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can "Google" the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

Maturana defined living systems as autopoietic, that is, self-organizing and regenerating, systems. All life forms share this property. They continuous recreate the components that constitute the structure of whole body. Our cells’ metabolism consumes energy and matter continuously, maintaining form without growing. They persist in a state far from equilibrium which state would, in living systems, correspond to death. Living systems also exhibit a property Maturana calls “structural coupling” describing a process of recurrent interactions between living systems in which their structure changes in some way to reflect the history of the interactions. Leaving biology behind for a moment, Maturana is saying that a living system creates new structure stemming from a recurrent (routine) set of interactions with an outside body. The outside system could be another living organism or some no-living natural phenomenon.

This structural coupling and development of new structure occurs, in more highly developed species like Homo sapiens, in the cognitive, nervous system. Roughly speaking as a non-biologist, my discussion here echoes what the Globe article relates: the structure of the brain continually changes during our lifetime, reflecting the historical set of interactions the body has experienced. If we begin to use a new technology like the Internet routinely, our brains will follow a different path of development than if we do not. The structure that develops determines how we act, hence the quote above: Knowing is created by doing and doing is produced from the consequent knowing (structures in the cognitive, nervous system). Our actions are constrained by this experience; we do not behave as the conventional Cartesian, computer in the brain model would suggest. If we routinely consult the Internet for the information we use in our daily pursuits, the practice of memorization, not surprisingly, would become less important and less developed.

This model of individual behavior can be extended to groups of individuals related by the routines they practice in ordinary activities. New technologies, like those described in the studies reported on in the Globe, can and do change the patterns of behaviors of those that pick them up and use. New beliefs can also have the same effect. Smoking campaigns have changed behavior in part by convincing people that the practice is harmful.

This model of learning and action has significant repercussions for sustainability. I have argued in my book and elsewhere that the unsustainable state of the world and the life upon it is an unintended consequence of the structures of modernity. The societal, cultural structures on which collective behavior are grounded are mirrored in the cognitive systems of the individuals acting within the culture. The ubiquitous presence of technological systems that shape an ever increasing share of our daily activities stand between us and the world. We unlearn our connections to that world and to other life, human and otherwise. As we unlearn the connection, we care less for the others and relationships wither and become effete and empty. The world becomes no more than standing reserve (Heidegger’s phrase) awaiting our beck and call to be used for something.

Our memories have served our species in good stead. We have relied on them in many situations, for example, to find our way out of a dense forest. If we have become so dependent on the Internet and the information it can provide that our memories wither, think what would happen if the GPS App on one’s iPhone or Droid suddenly stopped functioning. I was unable to access the full Science article so don’t know what the authors said about the implications of their findings. Clearly, they would greatly affect the way we are educated. The fundaments of our present education system are that we learn facts and theories (concepts) and operate on them in the mind/brain. Memorization is a critical part.

In a larger context, we would have to rethink the place of technology in our society. We cannot afford any more unintended consequences of the technological systems or of the technocratic (scientifically or rationally based) institutions that so dominate our lives. Unless we begin to change our views of what it is to be a human, living animal and incorporate the extraordinarily under-appreciated and largely ignored work of Maturana and his colleagues, the structural coupling of modernity is likely to continue to lead us towards the abyss.