The USS Quad Damage

Deep thinking

The only thing deep about your thinking is the depth of the irony that you think reading a book will make you smarter.

The problem is really that there is no rational end to this thinking

A while ago I talked about The Baroness, saying, basically, the kids are alright. People have other opinions regarding the internet and how its changing how people think. Carl Zimmer’s How Google is making us smarter and Laura Miller’s article Yes, the Internet is rotting your brain are both perplexing articles, because of how little ground each side gives to the other. Because one thing we all have to admit is that the internet is changing our brains, for better or for worse.

Or is it?

People talk about “the internet” — that is, browsing the web and reading emails, as a thing which constantly shifts our attention. Emails in particular demand our attention (esp. if you’re the kind of idiot who looks at an email notification, and like a salivating dog starts running for the mail-box). If you ignore the fact that, in theory, you’re the one who’s supposed to be in control, as well as the idea that huge portions of society imply that you ought to be controlled (why haven’t you read my email? I sent it 15 whole minutes ago!) 1.

Today, and by “today” I mean “the ninetees”, before the internet became popular, it was fairly common to see parents control every aspect of their child’s life. It all ran according to a schedule — wake up, eat, go do activity A, activity B, and so on until sleep. In school, subjects are split throughout the day, you will spend exactly one hour doing one thing, then another hour doing another thing, and so on. Similarly at university.

When I first started working there was a fairly big shock to my system to do something productive for more than an hour. This had nothing to do with the internet, rather it was an artifact the way the system processed me and spit me out. Perhaps for older people who spend all of their time re-reading war and peace so they can talk about how much smarter they are than kids today, not being able to read war and peace all of the sudden could be attributed to the internet.

Scheduling seems to be the “big thing”, and when it comes to “increasing productivity”, “scheduling” is the universal solution. However, as we all know all too well, sticking a timer on a person is the best way to kill off creativity. As far as I know, creativity is deep thought. As far as I can tell, your mind wandering and exploring new or alternative ideas is a good thing. The problem with War and Peace (by the mere fact that it’s a book) is that it holds your hand and walks you through an implausible journey. The entire time, you’re thinking “hey what's that over there” or “That can't be right” or “I wonder what would happen if”. The internet is merely a “choose your own adventure” version of war and peace, and the restrictive formats of yesteryear are the real problem.

So on the one hand, the time pressures people put on “study this thing”, “do that thing” without any time for reflection or for allowing your mind to form concepts is a problem, but the internet, with its ability to facilitate these these wandering minds is exactly the solution that allows people to process this information cleanly. When I’m under the gun, I find myself not wanting to think outside the box because I’m risking time, which automatically becomes a precious resource, with “thought” becoming secondary. I find my best thinking happening when I’m aimlessly wandering the internet. I find I’m in the same mind-set when working, or when messing around with something.

The problem is really that there is no rational end to this thinking. You can always think some more, find more information, rationalise additional issues, solve more problems in your head. You never really have to go do anything with all of that knowledge. In fact, my fears aren’t that the new generation will become shallow thinkers, it’s that deep thinking will be all that they can do.

1 Actually, I think it’s one of the big wins of twitter is it sort of acts like a short email without the social pressure of having to read it.