How the Internet Destroyed Our Natural Ability to Navigate the Offline World
The author of ‘The Stars in Our Pockets’ on eschewing the internet, getting lost, and ‘climate change of the mind’
When Howard Axelrod was a junior at Harvard, a horrific accident during a game of pickup basketball left him blind in one eye. Five years later, in the fall of 1999, still struggling to navigate the landscape around him, he retreated to the woods of northeast Vermont. His plan was to live off the grid, reorienting himself with the natural environment. “I needed to live without the need of putting on a face for anyone, including myself,” he wrote in his first book, The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude.
When Axelrod reentered society two years later, the technological landscape had changed. People moving through the streets of Boston didn’t look each other in the eye; instead, they stared at the cell phones down at their hands — a trend that would only be accelerated a few years later with the release of the iPhone. “The sidewalk, the bus I took to work, the Starbucks around the corner — each seemed its own version of a ghost town, inhabited by people who were there but who also weren’t,” he writes in his new book, The Stars in Our Pockets: Getting Lost and Sometimes Found in the Digital Age.
An insightful perspective on how life online has caused a phenomenon he describes as “climate change” of the mind, The Stars in Our Pockets examines how our brains have adapted in the online era, charts the “map” of our physical and virtual worlds, and reflects on the complications that arise from jumping between them. Axelrod, who has eschewed cellphones long before the digital backlash, stresses that his book is “not a crusade against people using their phones.” Instead, “it’s a way of looking at the adaptations we’re making, what the tradeoffs are, and whether they’re worth it.”
OneZero caught up with him to discuss our “endangered cognitive abilities,” how our techno-utopian moment has roots in the Enlightenment period, and how the internet can kill curiosity, among other subjects.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
OneZero: You write that we have made “neurological adaptations” to function in the online world. That our “senses have become physics majors.” How is this happening?
Howard Axelrod: That’s what prompted me to write the book. When I was living in the woods, my memory of experiences that were happening there, my access to memories from my past opened in a way I never would’ve expected. My attention changed, which is part of why forming memories became so easy. I took long walks in the woods, and my brain was adapting to take in landmarks, to navigate. Our memory evolved for that purpose, in large part. How do you find your way to the water? To the berries? Away from the thing with the large teeth that wants to eat you? We weren’t remembering other things. Everything was linked to place.
When I came back, I was aware of that — how much your brain will adapt to your environment. Suddenly, everyone had the most powerful device in the history of mankind for changing our environment and changing our consciousness.
How do you see the physical and virtual worlds as different spaces, with a “border” between them?
They call for different traits. For example, when you’re on social media, part of what’s being called for is attention that can shift really rapidly from one post to another post. And also what’s being called for is a kind of judgment: Do you like this? Do you love this? Do you retweet this? Whereas in real life, what’s called for is a slower attention, where you’re able to listen, be patient while the person is pausing, thinking, not quite sure what they’re saying. And also what’s called for is to defer judgment, or not judge at all. To have empathy. Those are very different traits, depending on which environment you’re in.
The way we use the internet shifts our thinking — for example, using GPS to navigate puts us constantly at the center of the map. What is the effect of this shift?
The world revolves, literally, around us. You turn to the right, the map shifts, and you are still at the center, pointing towards the top.
These are the questions that are hard to get at. They become spiritual questions, not just scientific questions. If you think about the history of how we oriented, or our cosmological map, we had geocentric maps, the sun went around the Earth, and the church was very happy about that because we were the center of God’s creation. And then along came Copernicus and screwed that up. And then we had the heliocentric model.
And now we’re not at the center of the universe and it’s kind of hard to understand who we are and what our place is. It really is an egocentric view of the universe. Each of us is the center of the world that’s being created on our phone. That raises all kinds of questions about our connection to something larger than ourselves, our sense of perspective, our sense of what came before us or what will come after, our sense of being a part of the natural world — that doesn’t really show up anywhere on the maps on our phones. That’s a significant loss.
Beyond that, using GPS is linked to cognitive deficits like atrophy of the hippocampus, which is tied to memory, and dementia, right?
Right. Our memory is tied inextricably to place. In our brains, the memory center, the hippocampus, is the same center for cognitive mapping — figuring out the route you’re going to take. If we’re no longer using our brains to navigate, coming up with these cognitive maps, studies show that we start to have problems with other kinds of memory. There’s no causal link yet, but there’s a correlation between Alzheimer’s and atrophy of the hippocampus. If you use GPS all the time, are you more likely to get Alzheimer’s? I don’t know. But possibly.
What did you notice when you moved to Boston after two years in the woods — two years that turned out to span a period of mass adoption of a major consumer technology?
The first thing was the physical difference on the sidewalk. So many people had phones in their hands. If I wasn’t paying attention, someone could crash into me. When I came back, I was excited to be with people again. But so often, people weren’t interacting with each other. They were looking at their computer screens and they were looking at their phones. Just yesterday I was at a long communal table and there was no one who was looking at anyone or talking to anyone. It felt like I’d come back to a ghost town. Everyone seemed to be there, but they weren’t there. They were on a screen that I didn’t have access to.
Everything now is mediated by a screen. Your work, your social world. One person on one side of you could be doing an important deal and the person on the other side could be judging somebody’s cheeseburger, but either way, they’re not talking to each other.
Recently, there’s been a lot of lamenting in the media over the notion that the internet is hurting our attention spans. What exactly do you think this means?
I was looking at William James to try to get at that question of what an attention span is. Everybody talks about it, everybody says it’s diminishing. But what is it? And why is it so bad to have a shorter attention span? What James said is that an attention span is made of curiosity. It’s the ability to ask subtly different questions. Whether you’re talking about intellectual attention, or sensorial attention, if you’re looking at a tree or watching a bird. Are you asking subtly different questions? Can you ask a question about one facet and then another? It feels like you’re paying attention steadily, but you’re really paying attention to a lot of different things, driven by your curiosity.
Online, there’s always something prompting your attention. It’s like a pseudo-curiosity. It comes in and will give you the next thing to purchase, the next article to read, the next video clip to watch. You don’t have to ask the next question — it’s provided for you. Your attention span will shorten because you don’t need to ask those questions, you don’t need to drive your own attention. That’s very worrisome for that shift between the online and natural world. When you put away your phone and you’re talking to someone, and there’s a lull, will you be able to think of the next question, find the next association, or are you asking for the top 10 questions to ask next to appear on their forehead?
Now that you’re living in Chicago, and further and further from your period in the woods, do you think that the power of memory you developed in solitude is disappearing?
Everybody knows it’s important to adapt. But what happens when adapting to an environment means losing traits that you value? I try to take a long walk every morning. I’m on the outskirts of Chicago, so there’s a place I can walk with a bunch of trees and a canal. But when I don’t do that, and spend more time answering emails, it’s harder to remember things. Where I read something, or who said something, or what the context was. Whereas if my mind is a little clearer, I’ll remember who said the thing, exactly what they said, and where we were when they said it. When I notice I’m starting to lose that — it concerns me.