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This Is Your Brain On The Internet

A recent survey shows that the long-term costs and rewards of "hyper-connectivity".

The internet is indisputably one of the most transformative advances in human history. It is the first excursion of our race into an alternate reality, and we see more of our infrastructure, our society, and ourselves placed in it each year. From social networking and crowd-sourcing to high-frequency stock trading and mobile banking, we are ever evolving in this relatively new digital world. What will it mean for our children, and ourselves, as we grow and learn increasingly more dependent on the world wide web? Are we, as some say, going to become a cognitively dependent upon our machines, transforming into some kind of vegetative digital creature? Or will the internet provide us with the means to transcend our current abilities, making us more efficient, more effective, and more intelligent?

A recent survey conducted by the Elon University Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Internet Project reported in Discovery News reveals that the result could be both. The survey of over 1,000 tech experts finds that “hyper-connectivity”, or the increasing reliance on internet access, carry both risks and rewards.

One of the principal risks in being over-reliant, some might say, on the internet and electronics is already being seen today. Over half of the survey’s respondents agreed that the under-35 population had been significantly effected by the prevalence of the internet. Younger individuals’ ability to maintain focus and be patient has suffered in part thanks to the lightning-quick response of consumer electronics, something of which the average person is not remotely capable. In addition, younger individuals, “are shallow consumers of information,” demonstrating a diminished capability to think deeply and synthesize information. These short-comings are small, however, compared to another troubling aspect of a society dependent upon internet connectivity for information; one in which a government or organization is able to control access and thus limit the knowledge and information available to certain segments of a population. This would provide immense control over future generations.

On the other hand, there are a number of positive predictions for our increasingly digitized world. One respondent to the survey, danah boyd of Microsoft Research, wrote,  "There is no doubt that brains are being rewired.” She posits that the constantly shifting attentions of users will actually be a boon to creative individuals. Furthermore, other experts predict a shift within individuals cognitive processes as less of our minds are required for rote memorization. In other words, while the computer warehouses information for us, our minds will be free to devote more complexity to cognitive processes such as analysis and multi-tasking. As Paul Jones, new media expert at University of North Carolina wrote, “The replacement of memorization by analysis will be the biggest boon to society since the coming of mass literacy in the late 19th to early 20th century.”

As with the advent of mass literacy, hyper-connectivity will present both a boon to future society, and a host of new challenges.