Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why Internet users should ride motorcycles

When an article in the June issue of Wired based on a book by Nicholas Carr first started me thinking about this topic, I intended to post my thoughts on my Media Gleaner blog. Adapted from Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which was released this month, at first blush, the article appeared to belong in the category of media.

By the time I finished thinking about it and started to write about it, I realized it also belonged here on my Moto-Mojo blog, because my conclusions apply to both topics. And the process of thinking about it and coming to that conclusion also proved Carr's thesis.

That probably sounds crazy, so, please allow me a digression.

I read a novel in 1984 by William Gibson that introduced the word cyberspace for the first time. Neuromancer instilled in me such a longing for the universe it described that I couldn't believe my luck when in 1989 I became one of the first editors in Canada to work in online media. A scant few years later, the Internet boom was upon us. It may not have provided the neural interface in the same way that Gibson's characters "jacked in" to cyberspace, but for all practical intents and purposes that universe was now ours. I became an evangelist for it, spent two decades working in it, and looked upon it as the promise of Neuromancer delivered.

A long-time fan of speculative fiction, I am used to thinking of new technology with skepticism, because advantages are often accompanied by disadvantages. Nuclear power is a good example. It provides clean energy without polluting, unlike coal, fossil fuel, or even hydro power, which results in diverting waterways and drowning vast numbers of acres of vegetation. Yet it also provides the ticklish problem of what to do with all those spent radioactive rods. It takes millennia for them to cease to be a danger to biological life forms, including us.

In retrospect, it's curious that I didn't apply that skepticism to the technology underlying the Internet. After reading this article on Wired by Nicholas Carr, I may now have a clue why. Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian pioneer who introduced the concept of how the nature of a medium changes how we perceive it, would have delighted to observe the way the Internet had rewired my brain.

Carr has pulled together a fascinating collection of research on how using the Internet affects our brains, and even causes us to want and need it.

Here's the part I found shocking: According to one well-documented study, it takes only five hours of Web use to rewire a human brain to read faster and solve problems faster. The Internet teaches us to pick up on patterns in data to allow that to happen.

Access to so much information can make us feel smarter. That doesn't mean it's making us smarter. It just means we're using our brains differently. Studies show that when we read online, we also read less thoroughly because the number of links distracts us and breaks our focus. Even deciding not to click on a link is a distraction that disrupts the cognitive process we use to transfer information from short term to long term memory. Research has now shown that heavy multitaskers are more easily distracted, have less control over working memory, and are less able to concentrate on a task than those who habitually concentrate on a single task. Multitasking is no longer considered the most efficient way to accomplish things.

So the Web may be altering our ability to think deeply and with complexity. This is not good news. Yet it has become so integral to keeping us informed that we willingly accept this loss of focus. We don't want to feel out of touch or socially isolated, Carr points out.

What to do? Well, for one, we can ride motorcycles. Allow me to explain.

I've long noticed that when I'm concentrating, really concentrating, on a single task, whether it's reading a book, writing, editing, drawing, painting, or making music, my brain enters a state that I really like. It's almost like an inebriation of sorts, minus the negatives such as loss of coordination and verbal slurring.

According to this research, that state is exactly the opposite of the state my brain is in when I'm surfing the Web. Concentrating on a single task makes me notice details only insofar as they apply to how they can be used on the task at hand, while multi-tasking has me juggling the details without applying them to any deeper thought process.

The state my brain enters when I'm creating, focusing and concentrating also happens when I'm riding a motorcycle. When I'm riding, my eyes have to collect a massive amount of data that my brain then has to sort into information that is immediately relevant and that which isn't. It's exhilarating. It also inexplicably relaxes me, even though I'm hurtling down the road on a machine that can reach a speed approaching 300 kph. But the important thing is that, every time I get on a bike, within a few minutes it has cleared out the cobwebs in my brain. And allows me to take walks inside my head that the fast pace of modern society doesn't often provide time for. I do some of my best thinking while riding.

The remedy, clearly, is to continue to read things off line and to indulge in activities that require us to focus -- such as art, music, or making or building something. And ride motorcycles. These are the things that will allow us to benefit from what the Internet offers, while maintaining the wiring that allows us to focus, and analyze complex issues.

It's another reason to ride my Ninja. I love it.