How is the Web really affecting our brains, and what can we do about it? Is this even a valid question to ask?
Most agree that the Web is rewiring our brains, perhaps more extremely in young people, but probably to some extent in all of us.
Almost certainly this is something we can influence, and influencing the outcome is much more important than documenting effects and expressing concern about them.
A recent New York Times article on how the Web influences our brains by Matt Richtel begins with an anecdote of a life-changing email, an offer to buy a young entrepreneur's startup, overlooked by the recipient for days owing to a deluge of other, unimportant missives. The delay in seeing the email could have had devastating consequences, but it didn't.
I had a nearly identical experience, and in my case the delay in my reply made it look like I was not overeager and gave me better control over the dynamic of the situation in the end, almost like I planned it that way from the beginning.
This two-sides view is typical of much Web activity. On careful reading, Richtel's article gives a fairly balanced view of both positive and negative effects of the Web on the brain. For example, the author describes in detail the downside of a young father's preoccupation with Web access, even on family vacations. But trying to decide whether the Web is a positive or negative influence on our brains isn't the right line of inquiry.
We need a new discipline of scientific study that simply does not exist yet: proactive human-machine evolution. This would be a new area of scholarly inquiry that can determine what our goals and objectives should be as we seek to influence what the Web does to our mental abilities. It would also help provide standards of measurement for the important changes; rationale for why those are the changes to focus on; theories, definitions, and a strategic plan. Then we will really have something!
At the moment we are just whining and whistling in the dark. We need to take action, and for that we have to know what we are doing.
Traditional psychology and philosophy cannot deal adequately with the "machine" aspect of the Web; adding the machine into the human evolutionary mix requires a whole new category in the theoretical sense. Arriving at the right insights about man-machine interaction requires an ideological shift, a certain philosophical stance on the role of tools in human evolution not explicitly present in mainstream academia.
A dialectic process unfolds between man and machine in the co-evolution view, which is an old and uncontroversial view about man and machine, yet one that is not really explicitly discussed or elaborated on or paid attention to in the mainstream.
It's worth examining why this view is not considered.
One would think that anthropologists would have stepped up and been more progressive and proactive in this area. The hesitance to accept the merging and co-evolution with machines within the general public is perhaps playing a role in preventing more research in such a field. That's obvious. But what would have to happen to tip the general public into accepting the idea of man-machine co-evolution? More convincing AI? Genuine and flashy human augmentation, broadly implemented? It's hard to say.
But we cannot sit idly by and wait. We need proactive study and education to ensure a positive outcome of our interaction with the Web. Right now, there is no organized educational program anywhere on the planet addressing how to be proactive about creating a better future for machine/human co-evolution.
It begins with believing a positive future is possible, and I for one am certain of it!
— Kim Solez, MD, Director of NKF cyberNephrology at the University of Alberta