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Cary Brunswick

November 6, 2010

Examining the effects of the Internet on us

``Look what they’ve done to my brain, Ma. Look what they’ve done to my brain …’’ _ Singer-songwriter Melanie Safka, 1970

Debate has been going on for years _ decades _ about the effect of television on people, especially the young, and the resultant influence on our social relations. Whatever the consensus of that discussion, it is nothing compared to the mind-altering impact that personal computers and the Internet have achieved.

Television was blamed for creating the youth rebellion in the 1960s and fomenting the antiwar sentiment that grew so rapidly during the Vietnam War. The new electronic medium was having a major impact, though few understood how or why _ or what could or should be done about it.

Marshall McLuhan, one of the first experts back in the ’60s in the new field of electronic media studies, recognized that TV was changing people and their understanding of the world.

No one knew exactly how the psyches of children and teenagers — who back in that era were watching “The Three Stooges,” the latest rock bands on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and shows such as “Batman” and the evening news — were being altered. The full impact of ``electric circuitry’’ and the new rapid-fire information environments it was creating was, McLuhan thought, difficult to comprehend with our ``outdated mental and psychological responses.’’ He wrote that ``because we do not understand these things, because of the numbing power of the technology itself, we are helpless while undergoing a revolution in our North American sense-lives.’’ Of course, not everyone agreed with McLuhan’s view that we were being carried along on a new wavelength of electronic communication, his explanations of which came to be known as McLuhanese. But as the potential of the ``electrically configured world’’ has advanced during the past 40 years, it is not difficult to see that he presaged our Internet era.

In the past dozen years or so, as personal computers and the Internet have become just as common household fixtures as television, the impacts on our lives that McLuhan glimpsed more than four decades ago have come to fruition _ and then some. In such areas as privacy, family relations, education, government and the ``global village,’’ a new world, indeed, has been created.

One of the major issues for young people and their use of social networking on the Internet is that many of their thoughts and actions are put out there on the Web for others to see, sometimes with embarrassing or harmful consequences.

This has made our traditional ideas of privacy obsolete because social websites such as Facebook and MySpace can be what McLuhan in 1967 called a ``big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early mistakes.’’ While TV may have contributed to the ``generation gap’’ of the 1960s, McLuhan viewed the ``whirlpool of information fathered by electric media’’ as far surpassing any influence parents might have in shaping the development of their children. How much this has progressed in the Internet age is certainly an arena for debate.

We are all aware of what cable news networks and the Internet have done to politics with a constant flood of news, round-the-clock talking heads and blogging. The idea of a public consensus has been replaced by a mass audience participating in the volatile clash of opinions coming from all points of the political spectrum.

It is difficult to keep up as ``information pours upon us,’’ McLuhan wrote, ``instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, it is replaced by still newer information.’’ As a result, a significant change with the Internet is the growing need to be constantly in touch with this or that website, Facebook page, e-mail, games, and the list goes on, even in the midst of important work or projects. It’s called multi-tasking, and many young people are becoming experts while others may flounder.

And some say the practice is changing the way our brains work, and therefore the way we think and the way we work or play.

The author Nicholas Carr, who has been touring the talk shows this year to discuss his book ``The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,’’ has documented the changes he’s noticed in the way his mind functions.

``I began to realize that after all this time on the Internet,’’ he writes, ``I’d trained my brain to expect a new stimulation every few minutes.’’ It could be CNN, e-mail, Twitter or something else, but ``concentrating on a single task for an extended period of time … had become unsettlingly difficult.’’ However, was it he who had trained his brain, or was it the nature of our more-pervasive Internet that had changed his brain and everyone else’s thinking habits, too?

As the electronic web we’ve created continues to spread more densely around the world and our lives, we’d better answer that question and decide how to deal with it.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.

 

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