[T]he Net delivers a steady stream of inputs to our visual, somatosensory and auditory cortices…If the slow progression of words across printed pages dampened our craving to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Net indulges it. It returns us to our native state of bottom-up distractedness, while presenting us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with.
That’s Nicholas Carr’s summary of the internet’s sensory and cognitive impact, as presented in his article, “The Juggler’s Brain.” Carr is hardly alone in fretting about how the internet overtaxes our minds and bodies with such modern day problems as information overload and hyperstimulation. In “Embracing the Lifeworld: Understanding the Technopessimism of Educators,” Karen A. Ferneding writes that teachers now “experience students being numbed by sensory overload, because such a condition inculcates a tendency toward superficiality as a result of the trivializing effects of too much data.” And in “The Medium is the Moblog,” Gary Mielo quotes Marshall McLuhan on the perils of media-generated overload, writing that:
Electronic circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously….all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment.
No wonder we are increasingly subjected to fretful questions like the one Robert J. Campbell poses in “HyperMinds for HyperTimes”: “What does all this technology, all these wonderful gadgets and gimmicks, do to the minds and intellects of the individuals who use them?”
When Unplugging isn’t the Answer
I’ve been tracking our collective worry about the internet’s social impact for more than twenty years, and writing about its effects on our mental health for the past dozen. In that time I’ve watched our initial enthusiasm for social and mobile media give way to deep concern about digital distraction and shrinking attention spans, for which there seems to be only one prescription: Unplug.
Unplug for two weeks by taking a vacation without your phone. Unplug for the weekend by declaring Thanksgiving a “digital fast.” Unplug for a day with a “digital sabbath.” Unplug for an hour or a minute with mindfulness apps or Facebook blockers or any one of a number of digital tools that offer to separate us from the fearsome, overwhelming, mind-numbing internet, however briefly.
While this prescription has long struck me as both simplistic and impracticable—what in human history suggests that people are likely to exercise self-control in the face of a compelling, ubiquitous technology?—I’ve struggled to find an alternative framework for mitigating technology’s impact on our hearts and minds. Sure, I’ve made a point of collecting tips and honing practices that reduce online distraction, but I’ve been troubled by the way these approaches implicitly buy into a couple of underlying assumptions: one, that the internet is overloading our brains, and two, that overload is necessarily a problem.
Then a dramatic change in my own family life opened my eyes to another way of looking at the internet’s cognitive impact. A couple of years ago, my son was diagnosed as autistic, which introduced me to the world of autism research and to the neurodiversity movement. As Kristin Bumiller writes in “Quirky Citizens: Autism, Gender, and Reimagining Disability,”
Neurodiversity spokespersons promote a positive understanding of autism, oppose those who advocate for a cure, resist the appropriation of their voices by sympathizers and nonautistics, and struggle for a collective sense of identity…According to neurodiversity spokespersons, autistic differences are genetic variations found in the general population and not symptoms of underlying pathologies….The neurodiversity movement has made a powerful case for recognizing how many of the unique qualities of individuals with autism are potentially an asset to the human condition.
While it’s most closely associated with autistic advocacy, the banner of neurodiversity has also been taken up by people with other neurological and cognitive differences. As Aaron Rothstein writes in “Mental Disorder or Neurodiversity?”:
The term encompasses those with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, schizophrenia, depression, dyslexia, and other disorders affecting the mind and brain. People living with these conditions have written books, founded websites, and started groups to explain and praise the personal worlds of those with different neurological “wiring.” The proponents of neurodiversity argue that there are positive aspects to having brains that function differently; many, therefore, prefer that we see these differences simply as differences rather than disorders. Why, they ask, should what makes them them need to be classified as a disability?
We might ask similar questions about the cognitive impact of the digital world. Maybe the internet is changing our brains, but what makes us think different means worse? Why are we treating these changes as problems to be fixed? Could we, in fact, learn to harness these adaptations so that they work for us instead of against us?
Yes—if we embrace what I’ll call digital neurodiversity. Digital neurodiversity recognizes that there are enormous variations in human cognitive styles and experiences, some of which are caused, shaped or affected by digital technology. If the digital wellbeing movement has encouraged us to pay attention to the way that technology is affecting our brains and relationships, the neurodiversity movement allows us to recognize that these effects offer advantages as well as challenges.
Nick Carr himself makes some room for this kind of exploration when he acknowledges that alongside the worrying effects of tech usage,
There are compensations. Research shows that certain cognitive skills are strengthened, sometimes substantially, by our use of computers and the Net….The winners are those functions that help us speedily locate, categorize, and assess disparate bits of information in a variety of forms, that let us maintain our mental bearings while being bombarded by stimuli. These functions are, not coincidentally, very similar to the ones performed by computers, which are programmed for the high-speed transfer of data in and out of memory.
In accusing technology of turning us into mental robots, Carr is unwittingly echoing another trope widely criticized by the neurodiversity movement: equating neurological difference with inhumanity. Quoting Tyler Cowen in “Autism and Rhetoric,” Heilker and Yergeau note that “Even when the cognitive capabilities of autistics are recognized—most commonly in the cases of savants—it is too often accompanied by a clichéd and inaccurate picture of a cold, robotic, or less than human personality.
This points us towards one of the major obstacles to embracing digitally rewired brains as the latest form of natural human variation: our collective discomfort with difference, and especially, with disability. In her article on “Cripping the Classroom,” Claire McKinney points out that
The everyday interactions with and also avoidance of people with disabilities are social artifacts of the construction of disability as related to degeneracy and death, which can become construed as threats to one’s sense of self and wholeness. One does not have to fear “catching” a disability in order to experience aversion to human diversity that has been categorized as tragic, degenerate, or fatal.
Our suspicious and hostile attitude towards the way the internet is changing our brain is rooted in exactly this kind of aversion. When we advocate for unplugging, or device-free classrooms, or regulation of “distracting” technologies, we’re revealing our deep fear of becoming anything other than what currently counts as “neurotypical.” The terms “neurotypical” and “neuroatypical” are the adjectives used in the neurodiversity community, because they challenge our cultural assumption that there is some single way our brains are supposed to work. As Margaret Price writes in “Mental Disability and Other Terms of Art,” “Neuroatypical is a resistant term, implying an activist stance and a rebellion against the biomedical-industrial complex.”
Adopting the language and analyses of the disability movement opens a new range of possibilities for understanding and engaging with the way the internet is changing our minds, behaviors, and relationships. Rosemary Garland-Thompson proposes the term “misfits” in her article of the same name, using it to reframe the very idea of disability:
Fitting and misfitting denote an encounter in which two things come together in either harmony or disjunction. When the shape and substance of these two things correspond in their union, they fit. A misfit, conversely, describes an incongruent relationship between two things: a square peg in a round hole. The problem with a misfit, then, inheres not in either of the two things but rather in their juxtaposition, the awkward attempt to fit them together.
At this moment, I would argue, many of our encounters with technology make us feel like misfits in just this way. Particularly for those of us who grew up, went to school, or first learned to use our minds in a pre-internet world, the cognitive impact of daily technology use can feel tangible, uncomfortable, and overwhelming. Our minds are changing in ways that make us feel alien to ourselves—or they’re not changing, and we feel increasingly out of step with our digital surroundings.
As Micki McGee writes in “Neurodiversity,”
the temporal environment of accelerated work schedules makes formerly acceptable levels of production deficient, rendering those who cannot maintain the new speed of production debilitated. The speedup in production in the last two decades has created a whole new sector of the debilitated, if not the fully disabled: those with deficits of attention, flexibility, or sociability.
If the nature and pace of tech change are pushing more and more of us out of the neurotypical camp and into the realm of what was previously considered neuroatypical, we must remember that this is a still a new world for us, both individually and collectively. Our culture is just beginning to develop not only the technologies but the practices that will make the digital world inhabitable, and our schools and workplaces have barely begun to accommodate the changing nature of human thought and interaction.
Fear of Disability
Meanwhile, the sheer unfamiliarity of the situation leads us to overestimate its impact and disadvantages for reasons that are once again linked to our fears about disability. As McKinney writes of the practice of “simulating disabilities,”
Such simulations, where some without an impairment lives with an impairment for a brief time, can instead produce pity, based on an exaggerated sense of the difficulty of living with an impairment. Using a wheelchair for the first time makes the task of movement seem awkward and difficult, while habitual wheelchair users draw on acquired knowledge that renders wheelchair use a normal way to negotiate space and movement.
In a sense, we’re like the student being asked to play at using a wheelchair—all awkwardness and discomfort, and not yet embracing a new way of moving through the world, let alone a new identity. That discomfort can be eased if we recognize the still-nascent digital revolution as a transitional moment that requires us to find new ways of being and thinking. This reframes the conversation about digital wellbeing as an epistemological and ontological challenge: Instead of talking about “digital overload” as a sign that the internet is toxic to humans, we can approach the experience of hyper-stimulation with openness and curiosity, to see what if offers us rather than rushing to judgment. Instead of perceiving “digital distraction” as a hazard to avoid or minimize, we might explore the kinds of perception, thinking, and creativity that become available when we shift more rapidly from link to link or from topic to topic.
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This, it seems is our challenge: To learn from the worlds of neurodiversity and disability advocacy, so that we get past our terror of brains that are somehow “other.” To stop romanticizing the pre-internet brain as the norm—a norm that was itself always a fiction, predicated on the denial, erasure, or abjection of neuroatypical people. To embrace neurodiversity as an essential and valuable part of our collective humanity, rather than something to be cured or quelled or fetishized. And to embrace technology, in all its distractions and contradictions, as an opportunity to explore new ways of using and understanding our own perplexing brains.