The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky | How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don't Work in a Complex World
Bryan Appleyard
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 288pp, £20

How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? The Net's Impact on Our Minds and Future
Edited by John Brockman
Atlantic Books, 410pp, £19.99

Nicholas Carr has a lot to answer for. In 2008, Atlantic magazine published an essay of his called "Is Google making us stupid?", in which he argued that the internet was changing the way we think - making us less reflective, less capable of sustained concentration. "The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle," Carr wrote.

Thousands of readers nodded along, although the irony of doing this while reading a 4,000-word article may have escaped many of them. (Carr later expanded his argument in a book called The Shallows, which made the New York Times bestseller list. Clearly, some people were still capable of deep reading, or at least thought they were.)

Both Bryan Appleyard's The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky and John Brockman's new collection were written in the shadow of Carr's question. Appleyard's book interrogates the idea that human beings have spent decades trying to create machines in their image and whether, having failed - witness the annoyance of automated option "trees" at call centres - we are trying to bend ourselves to fit with the machines. Does our technology shape us, just as we shape our technology?

He notes that every time we advance our understanding of the human brain, it is shown to be even more extraordinary than we thought. Yet we continue to believe that the same brain is ultimately explicable, if only we could apply enough science. Our latest model of the mind - that it is like a giant network, like the internet, in fact - also tempts us to believe that, with enough computing power, consciousness could be simulated. This is what the futurist Ray Kurzweil calls the "Singularity", the moment when a computer develops greater-than-human intelligence and (I'm paraphrasing here) declares itself our overlord.

Appleyard is sceptical and he marshals a range of dissenting voices, including Jaron Lanier, the virtual-reality pioneer who, in a book called You Are Not a Gadget, spectacularly renounced the "plugged-in" world he once championed. Appleyard doesn't much fancy being a gadget, either, particularly if it involves oversimplifying our thoughts and social interactions to fit into a machine-dominated world. It's back to those "call trees" again - why resign ourselves to a life of pressing three for the operator? Why not acknowledge that our analogue problems can't be reduced to a digital list?

Appleyard is a gifted writer, able to explain both the beauty of a Hockney drawing and the mathematical unit used to measure how many computations processors like our brains are capable of performing (the charmingly named petaflop). His book takes in a sojourn in an fMRI machine to see whether creativity can be mapped, a visit to Microsoft in the 1990s to meet its techno-evangelists and a disquisition on why interviews with actors are so boring and Cheryl Cole finds it hard to eat in public.

The book has a deliberately broad sweep, and Appleyard's attempts to show the ramifications of our digital collective culture occasionally go too far, leaving you stranded in the middle of a finely tuned paragraph wondering what the hell all this has to do with neuroscience. You never mind, though, because it's always fascinating, and always clearly expressed.

Brockman's collection is rather more of a mixed bag. Brockman runs Edge magazine, where he is described as a "cultural impresario". Every year, he invites a bunch of luminaries to expatiate on one of the big questions vexing humanity. In 2006, it was "What is your dangerous idea?". For this latest book, he asked his panel: how is the internet changing the way you think? There are answers from physicists, psychologists, euroscientists, evolutionary biologists, artists and others - including, refreshingly, a teenage PhD student who is a "digital native" and reduces the old-fartiness level by approximately 73 per cent.

One thing the luminaries mostly agree on is that the technological revolution of the late 20th century is the biggest upheaval since Gutenberg, and that growing up in a information-surfing culture is affecting us on a personal and social level. Given that I read this book on a train on my Kindle, while opposite me a stressed mother entertained her toddler - who could not yet talk - by letting the child play Angry Birds on her iPhone, I find it hard to disagree. Yet the very obviousness of this point exposes a limitation of the collection format: by half­way through, I was sighing repeatedly: "Oh, not bloody Gutenberg again!"

The overlap makes this book one to dip into rather than read at one sitting, but it's bursting with quotable phrases. Here is the writer Paul Kedrosky wondering whether he could give up the internet. "Could I quit? At some level, it seems a silly question, like asking how I feel about taking a breathing hiatus or if on Tuesdays I would give up gravity." He is one of the minority who are relatively untroubled by the netpocalypse, wondering whether he really had more BDTs (big deep thoughts) before he spent all day connected, or whether his memory is playing tricks on him.
It is largely the dissenters from hand-wringing who are more intriguing. June Cohen argues that "the rise of social media is really a reprise" - a return to a storytelling culture. And the psychologist and writer Steven Pinker believes that "the most interesting trend in the development of the internet is not how it is changing people's ways of thinking but how it is adapting to the way people think". He argues that the web took off because of the graphical user interface that made engaging with it more intuitive. Now we are developing interfaces based on speech, movement and even thought.

Ultimately, many of the contributors conclude that we don't know how the internet is changing our brains because we don't know how anything changes the hefty lumps of fat and water in our skulls: they are still so poorly understood. Or, as Emily Dickinson put it in the poem that gave Appleyard his title: "The Brain - is wider than the Sky -/For - put them side by side -/The one the other will contain/With ease - and You - beside".

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain