Is the Net changing the way we think?

To mark the publication of Nick Carr’s new book, the Observer decided to ask some UK experts about his thesis. I wrote the scene-setting piece for the feature — which you can find here.

It’s easy to dismiss Carr’s concern as just the latest episode of the moral panic that always accompanies the arrival of a new communications technology. People fretted about printing, photography, the telephone and television in analogous ways. It even bothered Plato, who argued that the technology of writing would destroy the art of remembering.

But just because fears recur doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid. There’s no doubt that communications technologies shape and reshape society – just look at the impact that printing and the broadcast media have had on our world. The question that we couldn’t answer before now was whether these technologies could also reshape us. Carr argues that modern neuroscience, which has revealed the ‘plasticity’ of the human brain, shows that our habitual practices can actually change our neuronal structures. The brains of illiterate people, for example, are structurally different from those of people who can read. So if the technology of printing – and its concomitant requirement to learn to read – could shape human brains, then surely it’s logical to assume that our addiction to networking technology will do something similar?