The way the Web has progressed as a medium replays, with the velocity of a time-lapse film, the entire history of modern media. Hundreds of years have been compressed into a couple of decades. The first information-processing machine that the Net replicated was Gutenberg's press. Because text is fairly simple to translate into software code and to share over networks — it doesn't require a lot of memory to store, a lot of bandwith to transmit, or a lot of processing power to render on a screen — early Web sites were usually constructed entirely of typographical symbols. The very term we came to use to describe what we look at online — pages — emphasized the connection with printed documents.
Next, the Web began to take over the work of our traditional sound-processing equipment — radios and phonographs and tape decks. The earliest sounds to be heard online were spoken words, but soon snippets of music, and then entire songs and even symphonies, were streaming through sites, at ever-higher levels of fidelity. The network's ability to handle audio streams was aided by the development of software algorithms, such as the one used to produce MP3 files, that erase from music and other recordings sounds that are heard for the human ear to hear. The algorithms allowed sound files to be compressed to much smaller sizes with only slight sacrifices in quality. Telephone calls also began to be routed over the fiber-optic cables of the Internet, bypassing traditional phone lines.
Our use of the Internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term influences over how we think is this one: the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it.
...it's no longer terribly efficient for our brains to store information. Memory should now function like a simple index, pointing us to places on the Web where we can locate the information we need at the moment we need it. Why memorize the content of a single book when you could be using your brain to hold a quick guide to an entire library? Rather than memorize information, we now store it digitally and just remember what we stored. As the Web teaches us to think like it does, we'll end up keeping rather little deep knowledge in our own heads.
When a person fails to consolidate a fact, an idea, or an experience in long-term memory, he's not "freeing up" space in his brain for other functions. In contrast to working memory, with its constrained capacity, long-term memory expands and contracts with almost unlimited elasticity, thanks to the brain's ability to grow and prune synaptic terminals and continually adjust the strength of synaptic connections. The brain never reaches a point at which experiences can no longer be committed to memory; the brain cannot be full. The very act of remembering appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future.
We don't constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence. The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.
In the 1970s, when schools began allowing students to use portable calculators, many parents objected. They worried that a reliance on the machines would weaken their children's grasp of mathematical concepts. The fears, subsequent studies showed, were largely unwarranted. No longer forced to spend a lot of time on routine calculations, many students gained a deeper understanding of the principles underlying their exercises. Today, in freeing us from the work of remembering, it's said, the Web allows us to deveote more time to creative thought. As the experience of math students has shown, the calculator made it easier for the brain to transfer ideas from working memory to long-term memory and encode them in the conceptual schemas that are so important to building knowledge. The Web has a very different effect. It places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas. The calculator, a powerful but highly specialized tool, turned out to be an aid to memory. The Web is a technology of forgiveness.
The more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted — to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we're away from our computers. Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.