Twitter, Facebook, Google… we know the internet is driving us to distraction. But could sitting at your computer actually calm you down? Oliver Burkeman investigates the slow web movement
Back in the summer of 2008 – a long time ago, in internet terms, two years before Instagram, and around the time of Twitter's second birthday – the US writer Nicholas Carr published a now famous essay in the Atlantic magazine entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? The more time he spent online, Carr reported, the more he experienced the sensation that something was eating away at his brain. "I'm not thinking the way I used to think," he wrote. Increasingly, he'd sit down with a book, but then find himself unable to focus for more than two or three pages: "I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text." Reading, he recalled, used to feel like scuba diving in a sea of words. But now "I zip along the surface like a guy on a jetski."
In the half-decade since Carr's essay appeared, we've endured countless scare stories about the life-destroying effects of the internet, and by and large they've been debunked. No, the web probably isn't addictive in the sense that nicotine or heroin are; no, Facebook and Twitter aren't guilty of "killing conversation" or corroding real-life friendship or making children autistic. Yes, the internet is "changing our brains", but then so does everything – and, contrary to the claims of one especially panicky Newsweek cover story, it certainly isn't "driving us mad".