Changing Our Minds: Virtue Ethics for a Digital Age

By Neulieb, Christine | Commonweal, December 17, 2010 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Changing Our Minds: Virtue Ethics for a Digital Age


Neulieb, Christine, Commonweal


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Changing Our Minds: Virtue Ethics for a Digital Age
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?