In his new book, The Shallows, Carr argues that surfing the web conditions the brain to skim read and to flit between sources, sacrificing its ability to pay close attention for prolonged periods.
Not everyone is so pessimistic about the psychological impact of the web. A report commissioned by BCS (formerly known as the British Computing Society) found that access to the Internet is correlated with happiness.
The report was based on the World Values Survey, a global study of cultural values and personal dispositions with over 35,000 respondents from around the world. It found a correlation between the number of hours spent accessing the Internet and two factors associated with happiness: life satisfaction and ‘a feeling of independence and control’.
Michael Willmott, a social scientist who conducted the analysis, believes that it is this sense of independence and empowerment that explains the effect. “It makes sense that access to the Internet is empowering,” he says.
Interestingly, it was especially strong among women in developing countries.
The report speculated that this might reflect “the social networking role of women around the world”, given the fact that so much social interaction now takes place online. Also, people from poorer educational backgrounds appeared to derive a greater benefit from Internet access, perhaps because it grants them access to information that was not previously available to them.
There are other possible explanations, of course, but Willmott says he was able to rule some of them out statistically. For example, it might have been that office work, rather than Internet access per se, leads to improved life satisfaction compared to manual labour.
“But work itself wasn’t particularly relevant to satisfaction, unless people are unemployed,” Willmott explains. The effect was also independent of the respondent’s income. Willmott does concede, however, that more detailed analysis is required to prove that empowerment is indeed the effect behind this finding.
The plan is to analyse a dataset called the British Household Panel Study, which surveyed a larger number of respondents on how busy they are and what they do with their time.
According to BCS president Elizabeth Sparrow, the finding highlights the often unsung positive contribution that IT has made to people’s lives. “The social and personal benefits of information and IT outweigh the negatives for the majority,” she wrote in the foreword to the report.