The notion that the tools we use end up shaping us has been bouncing around the minds of thinkers for centuries for sure, and probably millenia. In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan explores that idea in relation to the onslaught of information-disseminating media like television and radio. It seems logical that the medium through which information reaches our minds would affect and impact how we understand it. Certain individuals retain information better when it is consumed visually, represented with graphs and tables; others tend to benefit from aural stimulation, preferring to listen intently to a lecture; some of us even enjoy siting quietly and reading a newspaper article or essay.
When we think about the different ways we most effectively grasp new concepts, we’re apt to attribute it to a certain immutable characteristic of our minds. We assert that we’re “visual learners” or lament a freshman lecture course because we “just don’t learn that way.” What we sometimes fail to consider is that the various modes of information delivery are in fact intellectual tools that result in tangible, observable effects on the actual structure of the brain.
When we turn our thoughts to other types of tools, it is clear that their implementation ends up affecting our bodies in one way or another. Sometimes the effects can be subtle, leading to convenience and efficiency rather than clear physical change. The use of a vacuum cleaner instead of a broom might fall under that category. A broom is less efficient, but requires a different set of skills and muscles to operate. Some of the most noticeable strides in the development of tools have come in the field of agriculture. Tractor-driven plows make the farmer many times more productive than plowing by hand or using oxen. Sitting in a tractor, though, has an obviously different effect on the body than tilling the soil by hand.
Efficiency, productivity, and convenience have won the day. The quantitative improvement of increased production automatically signifies a qualitative benefit as well. In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr addresses this idea by discussing the historical contributions of Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American engineer who revolutionized manufacturing by “breaking down each job” of different steel plant workers “into a sequence of small steps. . . [creating] a set of precise instructions. . . for how each worker should work” (149). Carr notes that this is the same idea behind the modern development of algorithms that allow for fast, efficient searching of databases. In other words, Taylor’s work set in motion the chain reaction that would eventually lead to Google.
I know what you’re thinking, and don’t worry. I’m not going to bad mouth Google here. I’ve utilized that wonderful resource several times during this post. It bears consideration, however, that the entire Web, of which Google is a monolithic component, functions as an intellectual tool. A really great tool, as a matter of fact. More information than is even conceivable is available on the Web, and the ever-developing algorithms of our friends at the Googleplex help us to navigate that ocean of data and pull out what might be relevant. As we delight in the conveniences of the Web, though, we should remind ourselves that the tools we use for working are also working on us.
Carr notes a study conducted by UCLA psychiatry professor Gary Small that utilized the MRI scans of experienced Web surfers and those of non-users to learn more about how internet usage affects the brain. The preliminary scans showed that the brain activity between the two groups was very different, but after five days of playing online (for an hour per day) the novice group showed observable differences in their scans. The use of the new tool had physically altered their brains in a matter of hours.
The conclusion to draw from all of this is not to unplug completely. For many people, that is simply an impossibility if they want to keep their jobs or pass their classes. However, what we need to take away is an awareness of how the ubiquity of Web usage is causing anatomical changes in our brains. As we consider that fact, we can then make an informed decision about how much we want the Web to be a part of our lives.