“As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” (p. 57)
It reminds me of Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Discourse, which was written before the Internet had such widespread influence.Carr says that his literary-type friends are also having trouble staying focused on long pieces of writing. One blogger who was a lit major used to read books voraciously, but wonders–even worries–if not only the way he reads has changed, but also the way he thinks?Another guy admitted that he now has “almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print.” And another wrote, “Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”Looks like I would have already lost him by now, were he reading this post.Carr quotes Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, saying that she:
worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace…Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. (p. 58).
Is Carr right? Are we as a society or even worldwide losing the focus of slow, attentive reading?The article warns:
Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives–or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts–as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. (p. 60)
Carr talks about Google’s goals as a company, and described the company founders’ desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence that might even be connected to our brains. He quoted one of the two founders, Larry Page. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people–or smarter.” And then the scariest quote of all:
Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.
According to Carr, Page said that in a 2004 interview with Newsweek. He really did.Is nobody nervous about that?I’m telling you, that is the stuff of science fiction novels, people. And yet, it’s not scary or uncomfortable at all to a generation of kids growing up with avatars and second lives online. It would seem like a perfectly normal progression to stick a contraption on one’s head and gain access to all kinds of information simply by thinking a question–and getting immediate answers. No need to study for tests anymore, or store up information in one’s head. It’s all right there in a gadget. What’s weird about that?, our children will wonder. They’ll shake their heads and make fun of their old-fashioned parents, so “out of it.””They don’t get it. We don’t need school anymore–we have artificial intelligence. Right here at our fingertips.”I’m not even dreaming this up, because I hear kids say this already. “Why would I need to memorize anything? I just Google it and get all the information I need.”Maybe I am an old fogey, but I’m with Carr:
[Google’s] easy assumption that we’d all ‘be better off’ if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling…In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive. (p. 62, 63)
In my world, contemplation is something to be practiced and developed, not lost; and my brain is something to be exercised and developed, not supplanted. The computer and search engines are tools at my disposal, not a substitute for learning and thinking on my own.What kinds of mental disciplines should we put into place in our lives to fight this?How can we slow down as we recall how to read deeply and start practicing it?What shall we change about our reading in order to focus on one article long enough to absorb it, understand it, consider its premise and argument, and then talk with someone else about it?How can we keep from clicking away and skimming and clicking away again?How can we learn? Think? Truly read?This speed-reading is affecting our ability to study, stick with, and (with the aid of the Spirit) comprehend God’s Word.Which will affect, in turn, our prayer life.Our minds will be fickle and flit from thought to thought, always looking for the next quippy quote that takes little time to “get.”We must pray more slowly, read more slowly.To do so, we may need to live more slowly.If I may finish with a more secular thought from that article, here’s something else Carr wrote:
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake: I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”
As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”
So many quotable quotes just in that section…Read slowly the things worth your time. Don’t lose those “quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or…any other act of contemplation” you might enjoy this summer.Make associations.Draw your own inferences and analogies.Foster your own ideas.Read deeply; think deeply; pray deeply.I suggest we get countercultural.Anyone for a long, slow, summer read in the hammock?