Okay all you people who think the Internet is turning you into attention-deficit twitchers (in which case, why the hell are you reading this?! save yourself!). Nicholas Carr, who wrote an essay in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (my response here; short answer: “no”) has lengthened that essay into a book called The Shallows.
Laura Miller has commented on the book at Salon. Here’s the money quote for everyone who signs on to these theories:
neuroscientists have performed and reviewed important studies on the effects of multitasking, hyperlinks, multimedia and other information-age innovations on human brain function, all of which add empirical heft to Carr’s arguments.
The results are not cheering, and the two chapters in which Carr details them are, to my mind, the book’s payload. This evidence — that even the microseconds of decision-making attention demanded by hyperlinks saps cognitive power from the reading process, that multiple sensory inputs severely degrade memory retention, that overloading the limited capacity of our short-term memory hampers our ability to lay down long-term memories — is enough to make you want to run right out and buy Internet-blocking software. . . .
Concentrated, linear thought doesn’t come naturally to us, and the Web, with its countless spinning, dancing, blinking, multicolored and goodie-filled margins, tempts us away from it. (E-mail, that constant influx of the social acknowledgment craved by our monkey brains, may pose an even more potent diversion.) “It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net,” Carr writes, “but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages or rewards.” Instead, it tends to transform us into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”
Granted, I haven’t read the book, and reading quotes from Carr and Miller’s summary doesn’t nearly count as reading Carr’s book, but I don’t find this persuasive.
I’ll readily admit that flashing lights and hyperlinks and skimming probably do have some effect on how your mind works. I’ve never really contested that–but the Internet is far from the first thing to assault your long-term attention span. That process has been going on for, at least 100 years in terms of electronic media and modern advertising, and probably longer in other ways. There have been studies that have showed simply living in cities can degrade your ability to hold attention in a similar way as what Carr notes above, and yet I note a lack of concern over artists, readers, etc that they live in an environment where so much as a walk down the street can turn into a cascading series of fast-paced decisions.
Frankly, people like Carr put me in mind of the great “Your Brain on Drugs” scare ad of the ’80s, lovingly represented by and homaged to with that egg to the left there. Even granting Carr some points, it still comes down to how you use the Net. I have no qualms with Carr’s contention that Facebook and email can turn us into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” Obviously–that’s more or less the appeal of a site like Facebook. But again, if you exercise a little self-control, Facebook can be a huge boon to your ability to network and keep in touch with friends. It’s a tool. Use it wisely. Ditto for the rest of the Internet.
Over the past month and a half, myself and many readers of this blog have been using it as a tool to embark on the reading of a dense, 1000+ page novel. I’m not unique in using the Internet like this. Clearly all of us haven’t been unduly affected by the fact that we use the Internet for hours a day.
I have no doubt that people can tweak out on the Internet and fry certain important parts of their brain, just like people can consume immense amounts of Coca Cola and degrade their body’s ability to process sugar. But in both cases this outcome is far from inevitable.
There’s plenty of in-depth, transitive content of the kind Sven Birkerts considers essential to deep reading out there, and anyone who wants to can read it. Over the past five years I’d read far more longform essays on the Internet than off. I’ve begun reading electronic books front to back. I’ve found books I never would have known of, I’ve conducted serious research, I’ve met people, I’ve learned how to process information from multiple sources on a day to day basis and form a cohesive narrative out of it. Etc, etc, etc. (If the ads bother you, then download some blocking software. Or cut and paste the text of the article into a Word file. It’s a small price to pay for all the free content you can ever consume.)
The information Carr brings together is probably useful in the sense that it would be more optimal if we could educate people to make wise choices, but all this alarmism around the ‘Net is just plain weird. As if people haven’t been dealing with these issues in various capacities for decades already.