I’ve been reading a somewhat recent book by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (an expansion of an earlier article). His thesis is simple: the internet is changing the way we think and the way that our brains process information, and not in a good way. At the end of the preface, Carr leaves the reader with a daunting statement:
The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.
I am barely three chapters in, yet I’m convinced that he is on to something.
In the first pages of this book, Carr recalls the frustrating experience of realizing that he doesn’t read as well as he once did. Whereas he used to be able to sit for hours with a single book, now he feels restless if he spends too much time with a single text. He recalls that he used to wander the library stacks at his university and feel a sense of peace: the books weren’t going anywhere, and they seemed to whisper, “take your time.” Now, things have changed. Libraries are now intimidating places, and book stacks serve only to remind one that they do not have enough time to process it all. Something has changed, and that something, he argues, is our dependence on the internet, a medium that promises to dish up as much information as we want, and to do so at whichever pace we choose.
As I read these reflections, I felt as if I had found a kindred spirit. I share the frustration of not being able to focus on one thing for an extended period of time, especially when that one thing is a book or an article (I can, for example, clean my kitchen for hours on end). I get caught up in chasing footnotes, and many times I find that I am skimming entire chapters in search of key words and concepts. To be fair, part of this is the nature of graduate studies. If you read every sentence of every book twice, you will in fact never make it through the works necessary to your research. I realized in reading just the beginning of The Shallows, however, that I have begun to see books like I see websites…footnotes have become hyperlinks that must be clicked (as a case in point, did you click one of the links at the beginning of this post?), and long chapters have become burdensome and leave me wishing that someone would just get to the point and write a blog post.
This past summer, as I was studying for my qualifying exams, I made the conscious decision to do most of my work without aid of a computer. I know that I have a tendency to get distracted easily, and I figured that taking notes by hand would eliminate at least one distraction and, to some extent, slow me down a bit. I found the process of studying to be tiresome at first, but after a couple of weeks of leaving my laptop at home, I found that I was able to read faster and for longer, and that I was actually retaining information more efficiently. I attribute this at least in part to the fact that one becomes a more efficient reader by practicing. In light of this book, however, I now can’t help but wonder if my lack of technology while studying had anything to do with my studying more effectively.
Carr’s argument in The Shallows is more eloquent than what I have relayed here, and he backs up what he says with articles from neuroscience journals and researchers that I’ve (obviously) never heard of. I will look forward to seeing what else he has to say, as well as if he offers any advice on how to counter these effects.
In the meantime, I shared some of this with Ellen the other night, and we thought it might be an interesting experiment to try spending two hours per night “unplugged.” No phones, no internet, no TV. We can read, play games, sleep, talk, etc., but we can’t use anything with a screen. We’re both looking forward to this little “experiment.”
If you’ve made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you feel the need to “unplug” from time to time?