In 2008, Nicolas Carr published an article in the Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This led to a flurry of controversy. The Guardian weighed in with a 2010 article which summarized the debate, without coming to any conclusions.
The idea that technology changes how we think is not a new one. Marshall McLuhan came up with it in the 1960s in his work on “the Gutenberg Man.”
Scientific evidence shows that how we think – process information – shapes our brains. Literate people have structurally different brains than illiterate people. People who take piano lessons for five days show structural changes in the brain area associated with finger movement. More surprising, people who simply imagined playing the piano showed similar changes. Numerous other studies support the idea that the technology we use changes who we are at the neurological level.
A 2013 Huffington Post article presented research on disintegrating memory in millennials, who rely on the Internet as an external hard drive. Other research shows millennials have shorter attention spans and scan text instead of read it, losing the contextual framework for ideas. They are also less able to identify face-to-face social cues. On the other hand, millennials are much better at processing visual information, such as images and video, and creating visually based strategies.
Society is returning to pictographic symbols as a way of representing ideas. This is vastly different from word-based thinking, which is more linear and analytical. Visual symbols are emotionally richer and holistic, which suggests millennials are beginning a shift in human consciousness toward a greater reliance on emotions as a way of processing information and making decisions.
Social media provides a collaborative, group filter for visual ideas. Ideas have always been filtered in some way, whether by schools and churches or by mass media. This is an alternative route that is creating consensus, and consensus is the ethical subtext for culture and society. It is no longer “What do I see and do I like it?” but “What do we see and do we like it?”
People point to texting as a bad thing because younger people are preoccupied with it. Critics are really saying texting is rude, but older generations have always felt that younger generations are somehow less civil.
Texting uses fewer words. Verbal language is stripped down to utilitarian meanings and the constant back-and-forth is far less likely to lead to misunderstandings than email. There is a certain wisdom and kindness is sparseness. At the same time, images are doing more heavy lifting of emotional meaning. You don’t have a regression to caveman drawings, you have a split in which two modes of symbolism are given different functions.
Before I became a writer, I spent a few years as an artist. I can attest the type of thinking I do as a writer is much different that the thinking I did as an artist. And I can tell you visual literacy is the much more complex of the two.
Here’s an interesting video on video literacy narrated by a guy with a great brogue. I disagree with the idea people need to be trained in visual literacy; kids are already developing a visual language. But the video covers a wide swath of ideas nicely.