Outsourcing Your Brain

As you are reading this article you probably browsed dozens of other sites of equally interesting, useful and entertaining content. What is more, while eyeing this sentence you are unconsciously evaluating the relevance of the content vis a vis your interests and intentions. Finally, you are struggling to finish reading the first paragraph as you are interrupted by an incoming email, message or a facebook comment. How to keep your gaze glued to one angle of the page?

The problem is, as time goes on and we increasingly become embedded with technology the less we are trained to dedicate a concentrated amount of attention to a specific topic for a prolonged amount of time. The more we interact with one particular tool, say the internet, smart phone or calculator the more we integrate our routines with that tool- outsourcing activities that were traditionally translated by hand directly from our memory to a functionally smart tool that replicates that exact functions more quickly, accurately and efficiently.

The tech industry is under fierce competitive pressure to produce ever more functional software systems that in turn substitute human tasks- this evolution is only natural as we are continuously searching for ways to facilitate our life. Tools learned at school such as memorization, extensive reading, essay writing and arithmeticx are becoming ever more obsolete as their efficiency cannot be paralleled with the one of Wikipedia, other online media platforms, blogs and advanced calculators. Centuries ago the man invented the script and paper, liberating the mind from having to memorize ardous phrases. Likewise, the clock transformed time’s vague tracking into precise, intentional measurements.

Today, of course, most of us take these tools for granted: everyone wears a watch and knows how to read and write fluently, just as almost everyone owns a personal computer with undisrupted wifi access. What one fails to consider though, is as we merge into an eternal partnership with these technologies we render certain skills obsolete. Perhaps the most important one is that of memory and memorization- by outsourcing information that we once stored in our brains through long hours of deliberate practice and repetition we now have the opportunity to retrieve that exact information from the web. The preceding plays a major role in shaping our capacity to store new information in our mind. We may not realize, but the painful process of taking a new piece of information and storing it indefinitely is done so by a consequent change in the structure of our brain anatomy, also shifting how we perceive and experience reality. The internet on the other hand, is simply a retrieval mechanism with no learning curve effect for us- quite on the contrary, its effect is debilitating.

Another, equally worrying problem from living in a highly technical, internet driven era is that of distraction. The web itself is the greatest promoter of distractive activity. Rival sites are in fact competing on mastering the novelty of content they provide to the reader just to keep him/her longer on the site. The links incorporated into the texts of websites encourage us to continuously feed on new information, loosing track of our search’s initial purpose. Furthermore email and social networking message alerts, by stealing our attention on a regular basis, rob us of the opportunity to focus that attention on an activity that requires quality and deep thinking that in turn can only realized through a deliberate and undisrupted practice of attention.

As technology is becoming smarter and smarter we are becoming dumber and dumber. Ever more I encounter people that struggle to remember today’s date, their relatives’ birthdays or execute simple arithmetic calculations, let alone prepare for a complex exam or dedicate concentrated attention on the book/paper they are reading. As I am writing I realize that while no one can stall technological evolution what one can still become more aware of the extremely valuable skills we are loosing when surrendering to technology in utter completeness. For more valuable and extensive insight on this topic I highly recommend Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows”– a must read for every urban contemporary individual that relies on his computer, iPad and smart phone to survive the day.

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