Owning Up to My Internet Stockholm Syndrome

As the entirety of our communications system goes online, Internet users are left juggling tasks that may be rewiring our brains.

“Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.” – Nicholas Carr

by Matthew L. Schafer

To a moderate amount of fanfare this year, author Nicholas Carr released a much-anticipated follow up to his well-received 2008 Atlantic Journal article entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” called the “The Shallows.”  The Shallows outlines how the Internet is changing the way we think.  An honest look at the effects that technology may have on us, however, is not a subject that many like to talk about.  Despite this, it is worth taking pause to revisit Carr’s book and examine our own technological habits.

Carr argues that the Internet not only changes the way we consume news, but also the way we seek out and think about information.  It fundamentally rewires the way we think.  The Internet, he argues, demands the brain to multitask-to jump from sending emails to reading news to tweeting to a friend to shopping online.  Because of this constant “jumping” from task to task, our brains can no longer stay focused on any one task for any protracted period of time.  Indeed, in the time I write this post I will have checked my email, looked at a text message on my phone, checked a news story relating to this post, and tweeted about this post.

“Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling,” Carr wrote. “I wanted to be connected.  Just as Microsoft Word had turned me into a flesh-and-blood word processor, the Internet, I sensed, was turning me into something like a high-speed data processing machine….”

In the end, Carr argued it comes down to a technological society driven by the Internet that demands immediate access to a broad but shallow amount of information versus a society defined and created by the book, which promotes sustained deep thinking rather than quick shallow thinking.  Indeed, there are no ads, no hyperlinks, no corresponding video to distract a reader of a book.  There are only the letters on the page and the reader.

Funnily enough, I had to force myself through Carr’s book.  It had nothing to do with his writing or the subject matter, but instead with me and my brain.  Like Carr, I can feel it.  I can feel my brain wandering, yearning for an interruption.  Anymore, I consider it a success if I can make it through a 500 word article let alone a 224 page book.

Unlike Carr, I grew up in the hyperlink forest.  I grew up just about the time the Internet began rewiring everyone’s brain.  My brain, unlike Carr’s, wasn’t rewired to adapt to the Internet, but was wired for the first time to the computer and the Internet.  Yet, my thought process still feels foreign-and if not foreign then highly superficial.

I demand facts fast, and become immediately frustrated when Google or Wikipedia fails me.  I go looking for the important bits of larger works and wrest them from their context.  I prefer quippy quotes that are sure to stick with people over protracted narratives.  I have been trying to read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist for over a year now–I’m on page 26.

The rewiring of our brains into multitaskers aside (which we’re horrible at research shows), the capability to find anything-right or wrong-by typing into Google exactly what you want to get back is dangerous, but also intoxicating.  If you want to find evidence that the Earth is flat in order to bolster your predisposition you can surely find it.  It is this type of information trolling that must be understood.  The reader, searcher, blogger, whoever, must be conscientious of this new ability to always prove yourself right even when you are wrong.

We must pay the price of these disadvantages to reap the advantages.  At the same time, we shouldn’t be too quick to set the advantages of the Internet at the alter of human progress, just as we shouldn’t be alarmist about the disadvantages.  We must simply recognize both, and move forward with a sense of cautious optimism.

Special thanks to totalAldo at Flickr for the lead image.


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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
This entry was posted in Internet Policy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Owning Up to My Internet Stockholm Syndrome

  1. boxcutter says:

    Whoa, referencing dailymail. Lol.

    Also, I can put anything you typed in the last few paragraphs, if not more, into the context of the ways we have lived (if you wanted to prove something, right or wrong, you got a book. If the book was convincing enough, it was hopefully held to a higher standard than one that was blatantly right or wrong.) for many, many years.

    Multitasking is very profitable and uses some simple psychology to make it work (Quick, memorable information, being able to see many sides at once). And being able to do what computers can do (word processing, relaying information) is important in a society.

    I think your last line is the best. We need to keep going forward, just carefully. There is a lot to abuse (for positive and negative gain), but it is the same as telling visual learners that they are not as superior as auditory learners. There are going to be fallbacks and it is up to the counterparts to compensate for them.

    • Matt Schafer says:


      I would say that there is a fundamental difference between the Internet and books as far as reinforcing previous beliefs-barriers to entry. While anyone can print off a poster or flyer, books (in most cases) must get past an editor and a publisher at some point. Online, however, anyone can post anything that may or may not be accurate–but nonetheless jives with your own pre-existing beliefs.

      Criticism taken on the Daily Mail citation. I was in a hurry, and felt the article would summarize research well. Please see the extensive research by Clifford Nass at Stanford on this subject. You can also read this study at the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded “that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.”


      Matt Schafer

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