Updating McLuhan: how the Internet and the brain interact

Updating McLuhanTaking up where Marshall McLuhan left off and bringing his thinking into the 21st Century, Tiffany Shlain explores an extended metaphor in this tiny e-book published as an Amazon Single. She characterizes the Internet as “an extension of our brains — an extension of us,” just as McLuhan saw the book as an extension of the eye and electric circuity as an extension of the central nervous system. In fact, Shlain’s metaphor stands up to greater scrutiny than McLuhan’s. She makes a powerful case.


Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks by Tiffany Shlain

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The similarities between the human brain and the Internet have been pointed out before, of course. However, Shlain delves deeply into contemporary neurological science, recent studies in childhood development, and the emergent properties of the Internet. She delivers up a convincing argument that we humans can vastly expand the scope of our understanding and insight by broadening the reach of digital media and engaging an ever-greater portion of humanity in taking advantage of the World Wide Web as a mechanism to share our ideas. Today, only about one-third of humanity — about 2.4 billion people — have access to the Internet. Shlain posits a near future when everyone who wishes may get online and share any thought with anyone else on the planet. By making judicious choices of what we share and what we read or experience online, we can literally reshape our brains.

This surprising claim is borne out by science, as Shlain reports. The human brain at birth is effectively a blank slate, composed of about 100 billion neurons, “the same number an adult brain has — but most of the connections between all those neurons aren’t there yet.” And it’s the connections that determine how we sense the world around us and how behave in response. The first 2,000 days of life — about five years — are critical, because during that time a child’s experiences determine which connections are made, which are strengthened, and which are left by the wayside. However, the process of reshaping the brain doesn’t end at age 5. Throughout our lives, the connections among the neurons in our brains continue to grow, shrink, and shift, the result of all we learn and experience and do as the years go by.

Already, digital “[t]echnology is rewiring the human brain” just as earlier technologies such as the book profoundly changed the ways we think and behave. For example, according to a California neuroscientist whose work Shlain cites, “social networking produces a burst of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding, empathy, trust, and generosity.”

Hence, Shlain writes, “If we’re at the metaphoric first 2,000 days of life for the Internet, then right now is when we need to pay close and careful attention to developing its brain.” With a trillion webpages now online, about 10 times the number of neurons in the human brain, the capacity for new insight by increasing the connections among them is already vast. “Both a young brain and our young, global Internet brain are in highly creative, experimental, innovative states of rapid development — just waiting to make connections.”

Our job is to ensure that the right choices are made to nurture empathy, creativity, and sharing behavior in both. In raising children, this means minimizing the activation of stress hormones in the early years, since “prolonged activation . . . can actually reduce neural connections in important areas of the brain — such as those dedicated to learning and reasoning — while increasing neural connections in the parts of the brain dedicated to fear and aggression.” In managing digital media, we need to ensure that the Internet remains open, so that limitless connections are possible. This means rejecting attempts by corporations and rebelling against those by governments to establish control over the Internet.

About the author

Tiffany Shlain has written a thought-provoking little book, entirely worthy of the TED label that promises “ideas worth spreading.” A winner of numerous awards, Shlain is an innovative Bay Area filmmaker who founded the Webby Awards a decade and a half ago and is now pioneering in “crowd-filmmaking.”

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