In making these claims, Pinker reminds us that he joined Leda Cosmides and John Tooby enthusiastically as one of the founders of the most extreme version of cognitive evolutionary psychology (CEP), the "modular brain" theory. We know that the brain has all sorts of very specific speciallizations, but the notion of opaque independent functional modules is far from universally accepted. Books that have included intelligent, scholarly critiques of CEP or stress the importance of non-modular aspects of brain function include Kenan Malik, David Buller, Merlin Donald, Terrence Deacon, Terrence Sejnowski, and Jeffrey Schwartz. The contrast between Deacon and Pinker on the role of language in the evolution of the mind is particularly interesting.
My point is not at all to "debunk" CEP by presenting people who offer other kinds of theory, since I think CEP is a viable concept that probably gets some things right regarding the evolution of the mind. My point is that it seems too radical to claim that the mind and brain are simply and entirely modular in the way they would have to be for Pinker's statements above to be completely true. Pinker wants us to believe that the brain is modular and that experience cannot affect general abilities, yet he can't help using the term "deep reflection." It is difficult to imagine how such a thing as "deep reflection" even makes sense in the modular independent architeture Pinker is insisting protects our intellectual functions from the potentially deleterious effects of experience.
Pinker even explicitly acknowledges the work it takes to develop intellectual depth:
It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate.
If it takes so much work to develop intellectual depth, how is it reasonable to then also argue that our thinking can't be affected by experience, or by activities that detract from this developmental process?
Yes, he is right the brain has limits to how much it is reshaped by experience, but I think he significantly overstates the case. The issue is regarding specifics, not the general principle of neuroplasticity. What specific effects do specific activities have on our mind and brain over specific kinds of time period?
Pinker may very well be right that the web is not itself deteriorating our reflective thinking ability the way Nicholas Carr argues it is. Carr perhaps goes over the top when he says that his failing ability to concentrate is specifically due to his use of the web. However Pinker goes too far when he implies that the idea is simply silly in principle. It remains an empirical question, not just a conceptual one, unless we're replacing cognitive neuroscience with Pinkerist modularism.
Pinker also misses a much more important point, that our attitude toward technology affects the way it shapes our daily life. He assumes that those university activities he takes for granted will continue to be valued just because he himself takes their value for granted. The university was not always there, and there is no reason to assume it will always be there if we stop arguing for its value.
Pinker's ironic conclusion:
And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.
The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.
Is it really our knowledge that is increasing exponentially, or is it available information?
That fact that Pinker seems to conflate the two is exactly the question begging that most fundamentally ignores the most central aspect of modern culture critique, are we gaining more knowledge because we are exposed to more information?
Against the cultural critics, the smart among us have always managed to take responsibility for their own minds and organize the available information and think deeply enough to create meaningful individual knowledge from it.
Against Pinker and the others who think cultural critics are just "panicking," the fact that some smart people always manage to cultivate knowledge in spite of the challenges offered by new tools doesn't mean that everyone else will automatically inherit that ability.
If we assume that simply having access to a lot of information will make us smart (this is not an exaggeration, it is literally how many Internet optimists think), we will end up missing the real issue.
The real issue is not whether the Internet fries your brain, there is no really good evidence so far that it does. The real issue is whether we recognize and continue to appreciate the work it takes to cultivate knowledge and expertise or whether we take these things for granted.
Update: Nicholas Carr responds to Pinker on his own RoughType blog.
Update: Commentary by Nick Bilton with some useful references, argues sensibly that each form of media has its potential unique value - http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/in-defense-of-computers-the-internet-and-our-brains/?ref=technology
Update 6/15: Some of the reviewers do more thougthfully reflect on bigger picture issues and ask somewhat deeper questions than just the alarmist one of whether the Internet is "frying our brains." See this review in New Republic by Todd Gitlin: "The Uses of Half-Truths."
Also: Nicholas Carr and Douglas Rushkoff respond to Pinker on EDGE.