November 09, 2009

Smart Phones and Dumb Humans: Is Web Technology Messing With Your Brain?

Photo: boris

So I finally signed up for Twitter. There's now a little widget down there on the left sidebar that displays my "tweets."

I'm at the Clueless Newbie stage of twitterdom and still have no idea what to tweet, or how to get people to "follow me," or even what the damn thing is supposed to be for. Also, I don't own a smart cell phone, just a dumb one (which is appropriate considering I never recharge it can't remember the phone number), so fear not--you won't have to read my thoughts from the grocery store about what brand of yogurt I'm buying.

My day is just not interesting enough for me to report on my doings every few minutes.

"What are you doing?" Twitter asks, all perky and hopeful.
Photo: Netzkobold

Well, gosh, Twitter...

I'm sitting here on my ass in front of the computer screen again, trying to write a blog post. And later, I might go into the kitchen for a snack! I'm thinking some little almond crunchy things and a glass of milk. Oh hell, that's way more than 140 characters and I just remembered...

Nobody gives a fuck what I'm doing right now.

So I'm thinking maybe I'll use Twitter to point out interesting health studies I come across, or fun videos, or stray thoughts, or blog announcements, other miscellaneous items that I don't necessarily want to write a whole post about.

Or, more likely--after a couple of weeks I'll stop using it entirely and pretend I never signed up. I joined Twitter for the same compelling reason a teenager one day starts wearing all her t-shirts inside out: because she figures that's what the cool kids are doing and she wants to be one of them.

(I can now hear my mother saying: "but what if all your blogger friends decided to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you do that too?" And my answer would be..."No way, of course not!... Well, not unless I got a humongous boost in page views or a cool sidebar badge or something.")

Anyway, what I will most certainly not do with Twitter is use it properly, like a professional blogger or a young person would. I will not read or skim through thousands of tweets a day, replying @hither and @yon, gaining thousands of followers and networking and building new relationships and bringing hordes of new visitors to Cranky Fitness. That sounds like way too much work. I'm already terrible at keeping up with lovely blogfriends I've met through the comments here. Instead, I will fail to keep up, and watch as my 7 followers drop to 3, and then when I'm down to zero followers I'll try to figure out if there's a way I can follow myself--without defying the laws of physics.

But here's the thing: my inability to multi-task, and my stubborn resistance to new internet technology might actually be a good thing! At least according to Nicholas Carr, who's written some fascinating and controversial stuff about modern technology and the human mind.

Carr's contention is that the web and other aspects of modern technology are changing the way our brains work--and not for the better. We may have access to a lot of information, and may be able to take on many tasks at once, but as a result we're getting all stupid and shallow.

Note: this is an oversimplification; Carr is much more balanced than that. But don't blame me, that's at least partly the point! Oversimplification is all we have time for now, and who am I to argue when it means less work for lazy bloggers?

Anyway, here are some brief excerpts from recent articles in The Sun ("Computing the Cost: Nicholas Carr On How The Internet Is Rewiring Our Brains") and The Atlantic ("Is Google Making Us Stupid?")

See what you think; is he on to something? Does any of this sound familiar?

"Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory....I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. ... Now I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text."

"I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet... Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets, reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link."

"Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Anyone else notice this phenomenon? I know my ability to concentrate on difficult tasks seems to have suffered quite a bit since I've gotten more used to endless distractions of the web. On the other hand, I discovered when I took a couple of weeks off from the web recently that I'm perfectly able to immerse myself in a well-written novel--especially if it's funny or compelling or features hot lesbian love scenes between 18th century English aristocrats.


Carr goes on to point out the ways in which our culture is changing to accommodate our web-altered short attention spans, and brings up other negative aspects of our technological dependence: the costs in terms of our relationship with people, nature, and our privacy. In particular, he worries that we will "emphasize efficiency of thought over depth of thought. I fear we’re going to lose...the kind of contemplative, reflective intelligence that is most valuable, most human."

I'm not sure I agree with all of his darkest scenarios, but I worry about some of these things too. However, aside from a study comparing new computer users to experienced ones (that shows some brain changes) the articles are a little light on research. (And I have to confess, true to his predictions, I didn't read every word of either article and it could be he had a lot more proof of the whole re-wiring hypothesis in there that I didn't see). Carr has also written several books and has a new one coming out in June, called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains; perhaps that's where all the convincing "our brains are totally fucked up now" research is.

However, whatever the research says, the whole idea of the internet messing with my brains definitely got me thinking! ... At least for a few seconds.

***Personal footnote for Cranky Team Co-bloggers: You know that section of the Official Cranky Fitness Style Manual on "Appropriate Language" (pg 243, paragraph 2), that reads: "In order not to offend sensitive readers or potential advertisers, please try to avoid the gratuitous use of swearwords, or if you must use them, consider the strategic use of asterisks-- i.e., "bullsh*t"; "assh*le"; or "f*cked up?" Um, you can go ahead and cross that section out. Thx, Crabby.

Are any of you on Twitter? And if not, would you bother to look at a sidebar thingy on the blog that had health links or should I not bother? And what do you think about the notion that the internet is... um... doing something bad to our... wait I forgot what I was gonna ask you.


  1. I used to blame age. Now I blame the Internet. Thanks. I feel better now.

  2. Sheesh! All this @#!$ profanity!

    Had my aged aunt come to visit. The woman has a friggin' Ph.D in Mathematics, but she has no ability to multi-task at all. It was interesting. If I'm watching TV I'm also skimming an article, trying to learn to knit, maybe even cleaning the living room. She just does One Thing At A Time.

  3. Not into Twitter!

    I'd rather just open the window, and shout, "I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"

  4. I think I enjoy learning and reading too much. I have no problem losing my self in a novel, or reading entire articles on the web, then following links to other articles on the web. Of course I skim though, if it isn't interesting, I'm not going to read it. I've done that since I was a kid - back before there was an internet.

    As far as having twitter on the side bar, like anything else, if the article name catches my attention, I will probably click on it. I won't be following you though, I don't tweet - yet.

  5. I’m on Twitter, but I’ve yet to post anything because I can’t think of a single thing I do that anyone (except my mom) would care about. I do notice when people write things like, “At the mall!” or something equally as boring. The worst are the tweets like “I hate when people do that. It’s just wrong.” And then you start wondering what they’re talking about. And you also don’t care because they want you to wonder!

    As for the Internet turning my brain to mush: Yes! I do find that reading longer articles is harder because I’m so used to everything in little snippets. The Internet makes it very, very easy to be a great skimmer.

  6. All I've ever learned about how technology destroys human intellect I've read in Fahrenheit 451. That book was the reason I didn't get my first cell phone until about 5 years ago. I'm following the internets along like a curmudgeon. Which is why I fail miserably at nurturing my blogging network and why I haven't logged into Twitter since, um, I dunno.

    But I'm all over the lolcats, tho. If I'm going to hell in a handbasket anyway, might as well be surrounded by cute grammar-challenged kittehs.

  7. I think I spend enough time "off line" to balance out the effects. I'm a huge reader and have no problem diving into novels for days. Of course I also have a "dumb phone" and don't see the point of anything fancier. *shrug*

    Love the devilish cupcakes on Twitter.

  8. I totally mocked twitter.
    said Id never join.
    and then I did that lovely quaker trip and had no CLUE that a 'string' was I needed to tweet the entire weekend.
    and tweet I did.
    and DANG IT FELT AWKWARD and weird.

    quite frankly I would probably nary have twuttered :) again were mamahood not so isolating at times.

    for me many days shooting out an 140 character lament makes me feel far far less alone and it takes 5 seconds unlike a phonecall :)

  9. I'm on Twitter. I think I posted once. Mainly because my day is much like yours in terms of boring-ness. Seriously, no one wants to read about me filing another contract or having the same damn breakfast again.

    But I'd read the stuff in the sidebar. Um. Usually. Sometimes I forget. I blame the internet for the forgetting part. ;)

  10. I agree that Twittering sounds like way too much work...and I'm at the age where I've given myself permission to not HAVE TO do certain things, and Twitter is one of them. (The other is finish a library book if I'm not that into it - I finally realized that the librarian is not going to give me a pop quiz when I return the book!)

  11. HA! I've resisted the "need" to get a twitter account along with facebook and myspace :) I am tho loosing interest in AIM.. mostly because the people i do chat with can text me, which doesn't require sitting in front of the computer. my computer updated and restarted itself a couple weeks ago and i simply forgot to reopen AIM.. and the world didn't end. *gasp*

    and who the hell cares that my daughter is taking a nap and I'm going to fold laundry?! *I* don't even care :)

  12. I'm on Twitter, woo! I'm fascinated by people- well, my major at university is basically studying people. So I find Twitter to be SUCH an interesting phenomenon.

    And yeah, the Internet is definitely contributing to a dwindling in human brains.

  13. I totally agree that the internet is changing the way we think and approach tasks. These last few weeks I've been largely absent from the www, and it took me a while to get back into real life!

  14. First off, and entirely unrelated, Dr. J - love that movie quote.

    Re: Twitter.

    I have a twitter account. Before I had the account, I didn't have a clue what I'd do with it, what I'd say, etc. I, too, share a dislike for the "eating a sandwich!" type updates.

    For business purposes, there are those that dislike the use of twitter for blog post announcements - I was in this camp and have changed my tune because I find I LIKE it when my friends post blog announcements, even if I have them in my feed reader. And I have a lot of blog feeds.

    For other purposes, it's a great way to know the people behind the blog. Don't just say "eating a sandwich", say "Eating a gorgonzola, steak, and onion sandwich from Cosi!" to which your friends and fans can respond with "EW!" or "I love Cosi!" or "Is that any good? I've never tried gorgonzola before."

    I've heard it called a "public chat stream" before, and although that's true, it's also misleading. I get to see what friends are saying to each other, and I can learn that my favorite bloggers (or authors, or movie stars, or football players, or my old friends from college) do and the things they like beyond their public face.

    Sometimes that's a good thing...sometimes it's a bad thing.

    I find it easy to use (after I got used to it) and I enjoy that additional way to keep in contact with folks.

    Re: Sidebar links - I'm a terrible, terrible cranky fitness fan. I've read you for over a year now, I rarely comment, and most of the time I peer at you through my feed reader. I probably wouldn't use the links.

    SIDENOTE : you could totally post the links on twitter. ;)

    Re: The internet is eating your brains > I propose that some brains are meant to be eaten.

    And perhaps the internet just allows us to focus on those aspects of our brain use (or lack thereof) to bring them into sharper focus than back in the heyday of humanity, before facebook allowed you to post pictures of your youthful stupidity and before modern plumbing.

  15. Well I'm going to be the voice of contradiction. :) I don't think the internet is eating our brains. I think, if you look at history, you'll find that people have said very similar things to other big technological advances. "TV will rot your brain!"

    I'm scatterbrained, in a bad, bad way, but that's me not the internet. The internet only gives me more stuff to not focus on.

  16. I think things like twitter jsut feed on our short attention spans and make the worse. Altho it's interesting the odd comment that comes up, for the most part it's just taking Facebook to the next absurd level and letting me know what sort of tea and jam my friends have jsut had for breakfast. I don't need to know...I'll be OK.
    I just don't have that much interesting going on in my life. I honestly don't have the time or need to spare the time to check what others are up to either...I realise I'm archaic in that I still don't have a cell phone either, but it just hasn't come up as a necessity yet.

  17. I sure can see how online networking can take us far away from "real life" but for me, blogging has actually put me in closer touch with nature again. I'm out there noticing more closely than ever before.. and photographing and blogging it. It works for me.

    As for Twitter.. I'm not the least bit interested.

  18. The funny thing about twittering is that there are tons of people with borning lives but they have huge followings. It is kind of like reality t.v.. Who would have ever thought it would be such a hit. But somehow it never ceases to amaze me the reality t.v. shows I find myself watching i.e. say yes to the dress. I mean who cares what wedding dress the girl buys. ME

  19. I am on Twitter (@later_pooh if anyone's that interested). I have the little gadget on my blog, too. Mostly in case I want to make a quick shout, rant, swear word, or whatever. I imagine it will be much more useful in the future, but for now I really use Twitter to follow the crazies -- Drew Carey, Meghan McCain, Veronica, and some of my friends. I find it absolutely hysterical the strange notes left by Drew Carey and Meghan McCain. I'm not a Republican, but she's funny and very strange sometimes.


  20. I totally agree with MizFit, well, except I'm a Daddy!

    I follow twitter to keep from feeling isolated all day. Gets a little lonely talking to a 1 yr old who only answers back shaking his head "no!"

    I did give you a shout out last week.

  21. I am so with you & Dr. J.

    I am older so I know a bit is that BUT I just never got the Twitter thing except if you do want more followers & how to do that.. I don't know! I can barely do what I do here today! :-) I don't get all these "I am eating a sandwich or my god just pooped type of Twitters! I know, I am old!

    I am going to have to check out this Carr guy. I like the sound of him & to me, it makes sense.

    Like you Crabby, I have been pulled lately about how much I am on here & how little real world stuff I am doing like experiencing people & life. I feel compelled to get the blog done & read others & comment to their comments on mine BUT I am not living my real life outside....

    So, yes, I am with you here!

    Thank you for making me feel better!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  22. I'm on Twitter (@jennifernobile) - I like it for getting information, "chatting" with others with shared interests, reading new blogs, etc. It's just a fun thing to do - but it sucks time out of your life, that's for sure!

  23. Hello. Gina's husband here. Gina and I were getting "romantic" this afternoon when your latest entry caught her attention (You know you reached the internet age when reading blogs is part of the foreplay).

    I couldn't help but looking over her shoulder. Gina is now taking a nap from, er, work out and your Twitter entry has left me wired.

    I'm an airline pilot and I tried Twitter almost a year ago. Now I'm hooked. I love it.

    I have one of the longest continuing blog on the planet (try 1998) and I'm thinking of closing it for just twitter updates. It's that good.

    Sending tweets from crowded airport terminals between two flights or from hotels late at night when I'm jet lagged has been an amazing experience. It's fast and to the point.

    Unlike our love making ;-)

  24. Danny!

    Hope you enjoy this :-)

  25. Wow, Danny!

    Don't know if I'm more amazed that you've been blogging since 1998, or that you guys would take a break in the, um, workout to check on Cranky Fitness!

    Is Gina gonna kill you when she reads this?

  26. I am about to celebrate 3 years on Twitter. I was there before anybody famous was.

    I'm an old hand. Can tell you how to tweet and how not to. Just let me know your questions.

    Remember: it's all about sharing with your community. (off to follow you and introduce you...).

    Oh, maybe I should finish reading this post?? Nah. Ill come back.

  27. Yay Cranky is back! I dont grasp Twitter at all. I think I may be too old.

  28. Ah, the sole benefit of aging is that you don't really give a sh*t what everyone else is doing. Or should I say "don't really give a tw*t".

  29. Crabby, yeah, she did. Another reason for me to stick to 140-character blog posts.

    PS: The song was great. Thank you, Dr J.

  30. I haven't noticed any decrease in attention span in the sixteen years I've been on the internet that can't be attributed to poor (menopause and allergy related) sleep. Obviously this Carr fellow isn't suffering from menopause, at least not directly.

    I got on Twitter to follow Andy Ihnatko, who can be just as funny in 140 characters as he can in a whole column, and added some friends and a few internet acquaintances, and now I check it twice a day, and occasionally say something myself. For the young? Of the people I follow whose ages I can guess at, only one is under forty.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    (creepy WV: "sarch"--is that meant to be "search" as in all that internet searching is ruining your brain?)

  31. I was once on facebook and twitter with an ex boss friend. We were chatting on fb and tweeting about being on fb and twitter at the same time. It was the highlight of my life and then I died.

    I am on twitter but i rarely go on it. I performed a vanity search and found my pathetic tweets and about died thinking someone other than just a few people might actually read them.
    I notice too that some people seem to have pretty much lost their ability to do anything but tweet all day long and that is disturbing.
    I also know of a blogger who left the blog world, went to twitter and is probably beyond divorce court now.
    Got to know when to fold em.
    and tweet 'em.
    Nothing I do or say is THAT worthy of calling it a tweet and being serious.
    Though I use twitterfeed to post my blogs.
    I don't even see it.
    I gotta go log on now.
    Plus I'm sure I'm missing a good tv show.

  32. Just Say No to Twitter.

    Excellent, excellent post.

  33. i'm addicted to twitter--it makes me feel connected to a bazillion people!

    I do feel however that it is taking over the world of blogging.
    Anyone else feel/see this?

  34. I like twitter for the quotes and the articles people post. Most of my tweets are just re-tweets from those I follow.

  35. Poor crabby! I'm right there with you. Got Twitter 6 months ago and hardly use it.'ve got a new follower. ;)

  36. I like Twitter. I find it to be a great source for breaking news, and I have actually made friends there. Some people use it for mundane, eye-glazingly boring statements, but that's why the Twitter gods invented the "unfollow" button.

    I probably wouldn't read tweets on the side of the blog page very often, but I would definitely follow you, Cranky. Tweeting the blog posts might generate lots of traffic to the blog.

    I have noticed that my attention span has gotten much shorter. I attributed it to age, but my mom sits and reads books all day, so maybe it IS internet related. hmmmm. Food for thought.

  37. I joined Twitter not long ago. I think I'm still on the fence. Trust me, my doings are boring, boring, boring, but sometimes its kind of fun tweeting them. As I put a widget on my blog, at least anyone who stops by can tell I'm alive, even if I'm not posting much. However, when I'm not tweeting much either, that "advantage" sort of disappears, LOL!

    I don't like using it to plug my blog on the whole. I don't mind that my blog is small time. I don't really mind if my tweets are boring either. Sometimes the very act of tweeting reminds me that I should be doing something better with my time and I leave the box. Which is good.

    As for followers, trust me, they'll come. If only to see if they can get you to follow them. Twitter is chock full o' spammers. I guess I'm just playing with it. I like it because I don't have to type much. And I can follow or not. Tweet or not. Read tweets or not. Reading tweets does sometimes alert me to a post I'd like to read or news that I have missed. I swore I wouldn't Twitter, but then I did it anyway. Curiosity killed the cat.

    As for the internet messing with our minds, yeah, maybe. I think we get so used to the info overload that we don't know what to do with ourselves when it is not coming in. I actually rather enjoy vacations where I leave the computer and internet behind. I start to look at our wonderful world and think about that. I remember what a marvel everything really is. I still like reading a book better than surfing the web.

    I don't know how to tweet really either. Would you believe I checked out a BOOK ON TWITTER from my library this week? Haven't read it yet though.

  38. I would love to follow you ...but can't find a link. Do you know what your Twitter address is? It will be your nickname is Also, glad to help anyone w/any questions

  39. Caroline--

    Oh shoot, I thought there was at least something on that sidebar thingy that led to my profile. I guess I need another widget!

    Anyway, the link is

    Thanks for asking!


Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)