On June 25, 2010, I’d tweeted: “Have the new technologies made us stupider or smarter? I feel I’ve become sharper in their advent. But that may have little to do with them.”
But, today, I’m not certain I agree with the assertion that technology has no impact on our cognitive skills.
I’m stating the obvious when I say that in the last fifteen years, or so, my mental terrain has changed drastically. We all evolve with age. And with age, I have grown intellectually brawnier, if I say so myself. Whether or not that belief has factual accuracy is beside the point. That I feel so viscerally is of significance.
My impression of myself as a young girl is of someone who struggled endlessly with many-layered narratives, math sums, road directions. No one who meets me today, after a decade-long gap would tell me so on my face, but they would be remiss in their observation of me, if they didn’t notice that the passage of time has only made me far sharper, far quicker on the uptake. (The flip side of that is that I get distracted very easily. I can’t focus on any one activity for more than a maximum of 30 minutes.)
Having recently read Nicholas Carr’s mind-expanding book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, I’m inclined to believe that the “passage of time” has nothing to with it. Technology has.
Carr cites the instance of how Frederick Nietzsche’s typewriter shaped his writing. In early 1882, when the German philosopher’s health was failing, and he could no longer trust his hands to write for him, he ordered the then recently invented Danish made Malling-Hansen “writing ball,” “an oddly beautiful instrument” that resembled an “ornate golden pincushion.” A few months later, a Berlin newspaper reported that he was faring much better. “But the device,” Carr writes, “had a subtler effect on his work. His prose had become tighter, and more telegraphic. There was a new forcefulness to it, too, as through the machine’s power—it’s ‘iron’—was, through some mysterious metaphysical mechanism, being transferred into the words it pressed into the page.”
One doesn’t have to be Nietzsche to be affected by a tool.
It is my intense relationship with the computer and the Internet, which has shaped me as I am today. I am quite convinced that my brain has rewired itself, due to my prolonged engagement with the QWERTY keyboard, hyperlinks, RSS feeds, “rich content.” I have essentially been transformed by the gadgets I own.
Carr’s book has helped me make a monumental self-discovery, a fact that might help explain how, in fact, I am composing this piece. It wouldn’t be possible without the QWERTY keyboard. Yes, the (seemingly) inanimate implement that I type on.
My muse, it turns out, is a machine. What a pencil and a sheet of paper couldn’t accomplish for me, the QWERTY did. It made me write, produce semi-coherent prose. It made me a journalist.
Unlike Carr and folks of his generation, who had an “analog youth,” I had an “analog childhood.” I went to elementary school carrying a coarse satchel that contained a triad of writing and recording instruments: a couple of ball-point pens, a few softcover, wide-ruled notebooks, a spiral jotter. I read linear text, printed on frowzy paper pages, broken now and then with a handful of smudgy illustrations. I wrote in longhand, on paper pages. I worked hard at making my handwriting neat, a perfect gradient of cursive. I played board games on boards made, in fact, of thick cardboard.
That was in India, in an era, long before the arrival of the personal computer, the Hyper Text Markup Language-built Web pages, the RSA encrypted information.
Maybe the educational system of the time, with its intolerable emphasis on rote memory, did all it could to mask my creative talent. Or maybe, it was just me—plainly obtuse. But I recall how I sweated over single paragraphs for essays. My originality went no further than blindly “copying” a section of a textbook, and “pasting” it with utmost care on a workbook.
Then, around the mid-1980s, I got my very first computer, a distant precursor of the iPad, which brought to mind the image of a large, square box each time I tinkered with it. It instantly became my favorite toy. Back then, I used to spend a few hours daily, coding in BASIC, a computer language that’s extinct now, I played games, but I rarely used the word-processing function.
Still, a change was underway.
It wasn’t until a decade later, however, that I fully adopted the tool, and attempted to use all its bells and whistles, the most exciting of which to me was the Internet. By then, I’d moved on from the Mac to the PC. My first browser, the first-generation Netscape, though nowhere near as efficient as Google in its present avatar, still opened up myriad informational pathways. The desire to navigate its streets, lanes, alleyways, occasioned learning how to use the mouse and the keyboard.
The change proceeded.
At first, I went slowly. With one hand, I’d type no more than the URL addresses of the sites that interested me. As I became progressively more familiar with the layout of the keys, I was tempted to open a word document, if only just to see what it could do and what it couldn’t.
I would type a phrase. Highlight it. Then, delete it. Type a short sentence. Highlight it. Then, delete it. Type a still longer thought. Highlight it. Then, delete it. It was like a game, almost. At the time, the process by which this dematerialization happened appeared less technological, more magical. I watched goggle-eyed, my mind quivering with wonder at the idea of how a strip of text could vanish without a trace at the mere tap of a button. How was erasure possible without leaving either a trail of faint gray smudge, or a strikethrough, or a curmudgeonly graffiti in ink, on a surface?
One may argue that the pen and the paper preserved all record of my intellectual toil. But that is precisely what obfuscated my ability to think. The more I saw the signs of my mental labor, the harder it got for me to write, make any headway with my thoughts.
Typing was different. “The world of the screen,” Carr writes, “is a very different place from the world of the page.” The very act of editing a word, a line, a paragraph, on an illuminated screen, allowed me to array my ideas, to sort through them, to arrange them, to reshuffle them—all without leaving an ungainly mess. What helped me move forward was the apparent absence of mental effort I put into creating textual content.
So while I continued to be enthralled by the technological novelty, on another plane, at the neural level, certain synapses in the area of my brain associated with writing skills may have been getting fired. I did not know. But I could feel. Cobwebs were beginning to scatter, clear, wither away.
Far lower in decibels than the sound of type bars striking against the ribbon spool of the old typewriter, the soft clicking of the keys hitting the board affected the mind, unconsciously. It made my thoughts crisper, sharper, cleaner.
Only brief e-mails came in the beginning. As that transformative phase in my life intersected with my entry into the news business as a rookie reporter, I began to craft stories. By and by, the role of the keyboard and screen swelled.
Now, I can’t even conceive of a life without the QWERTY keyboard. But I guess I have to readjust—again. The keyboard killer, the touch-screen device, has arrived.
Alakananda Mookerjee writes for fun and studies trends in business and design when she is not bemoaning the decline in cultural standards.