Changing Our Minds: Virtue Ethics for a Digital Age

Article excerpt

It's in vogue to ask what the Internet is doing to our brains. Will constant exposure to technology destroy human memory and attention span? Will it turn us into machines who can take in massive amounts of information over the course of a day but never understand it with any depth? Are college students really learning if they're taking notes on their laptops, but keeping Facebook and e-mail windows open simultaneously, and also surreptitiously texting on their cell phones?

A friend's twenty-one-year-old sister gave me a ride to the train station the other day. She's a student teacher in a third-grade classroom, and had just been complaining at dinner that the eight-year-olds are addicted to their cell phones--what's the world coming to? Now, as she was driving the car with one hand, she was texting with the other.

At least we're beginning to notice the problem. Essays on the topic of "How the Internet Is Messing Up Our Brains" are practically becoming a genre (see "Overdose," page 25). Nicholas Carr writes in his recent book The Shallows (expanding on his 2008 essay in the Atlantic, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?") that as he uses his gadgets, he often gets an unsettling feeling that "someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory." That is, the Internet might be changing more than just the trivial details of our daily routine. It might be changing who we are, down to our very biology, as it rewires our neural pathways at a frightening rate.

It should not be shocking that a habit like constant Internet use might change us at a profound level, perhaps even ruining the capacity for sustained, contemplative focus that we once took for granted. The notion that actions create habits, which in turn shape moral character, is the foundation of virtue ethics--as old as the ancient Greeks, and underpinning much of Catholic moral theology as well. Every day, repeated actions (bringing lunch to an elderly neighbor, embezzling company funds, surfing the Web) form us into the sorts of people we are (generous friends, untrustworthy scumbags, or distracted dilettantes). These actions even rewire our brains. If you lie constantly, your brain will adapt. It will become a liar's brain, complete with extra white matter in the prefrontal cortex to support the hard brainwork of deception.

Virtue ethicists would argue, however, that this capacity for change is as much a cause for hope as dismay. It is true that crucial parts of character formation take place at the level of neural rewiring, where we have no direct, conscious control. One cannot wish to be a generous person and make it so by a simple act of the will. Yet we can choose the actions that incrementally cause the rewiring. Bringing the neighbor lunch, turning the computer on or off: these are voluntary. The change may be painfully slow at times, but it does happen.

So there is no reason why we have to sit helpless and passive as the Internet re-forms us in its own fractal, impersonal image. Whether the Internet ruins our brains is in the end not a scientific problem but a moral one: How will we choose to use the technology? Will we create boundaries for its involvement in our lives, or let it shape us as it pleases? One can ask whether the digital revolution will raise or lower human intelligence, but a more interesting question is whether it will make us better or worse people. And that is up to us.

How exactly to resist the scattering of attention, eroding of memory, and countless other effects of daily bombardment with terabytes of information--what sort of practice it will require--is a much more difficult question. It's important not to trivialize the mind-numbing, will-weakening force that the onslaught of digital stimuli can have. As Carr notes, human beings, like Eve beneath the tree of knowledge, have a natural "craving to be inundated by mental stimulation," information, and impressions. …