Nicholas Carr, in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains, brings a lot of brain science to bear on his simple thesis: the Internet is indeed changing the structure and processes of our brains, as will any new technology that becomes as ubiquitous and powerful as the ‘net has become. He’s not a fundamentalist nay-sayer by any means–he confesses his own love of media saturation, social networking, etc., but it’s what he’s noticed about his own working processes, and his constant battle to focus his attention that in the end, caught his attention. In short, our synaptic processes are being rerouted away from deep reading and memory, and while writing, printing, radio, and television–all new technologies that contemporary critics issued warnings about–all proved perhaps more helpful than not, Carr (and lots of other smart folks, it seems) worries that the constant roaming of the eye across thousands of visual prompts is literally training our minds not only to be proficient in data collecting, but also in forgetfulness.
In my own experience, there is absolutely no question that it is harder to concentrate than it used to be. Even now, as I write this blog entry, I want it to be done already. I want to check my email, set up a few timed tweets and Facebooks status updates, look over the list of to-dos, check my email again, and hopefully get in a bit of prayer time before the 8:00 a.m. hour. And if what Carr’s reporting asserts is correct, that there is a distinctive way we interact with web pages (lots of research has been done on this), including this home page of mine, chances are visitors to this page won’t read but a few snippets anyway, so what’s the point of going “deep”?
The Shallows makes for good, uncomfortable reading. I spent the entire day Sunday reading as I rode the plane home from New York. When we got home I continued the small retreat with the magazine I most enjoy reading, The Sun. It was a long quiet day, and it felt as refreshing as a hot shower after a long day of back-breaking work. As much as I enjoy the quick uplift when I get a text or an encouraging email, and as much as I enjoy Facebook’s news feed so I can see what everyone is up to, what I really want is my concentration, my attention, and my ability to make long and strong connections across multiple sources of experience and input to grow deeper and more powerful.
Carr says to write the book, he had to unplug from the connected life for awhile. He moved to the mountains, stopped blogging, stopped checking email as often (maybe once a day), stopped tweeting and posting status updates, and let the world go quiet. Now that he’s finished with the book, he’s back at the ‘net full bore, but can still feel what he’s describing happening to him.
What’s the message, and what will I do about it?
For a longer, better post about all this, go here.