I watch television with my laptop open, check e-mail and surf the Web during phone calls. I like to think of this behavior as "multitasking" or Continuous Partial Attention, because that makes it sound like I'm doing it on purpose, but I know that's not really the case.
My newspaper column starts with Nick Carr's essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," and kind of meanders from there.
You can read the whole thing after the jump.
Rewiring our minds, for better or worse
by Edward Cone
News & Record
The old lament about the impact of electronic media is that we don't read anymore. The new lament is that we can't read anymore.
So says Nicholas Carr in a much-discussed cover story in The Atlantic, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Carr, a technology writer known for being both provocative and un-stupid, worries that the quick-hit, hyperlinked style of the Internet has changed the way he deals with text -- remaking not just his reading habits, but the actual mental processes behind them.
"I'm not thinking the way I used to think," he writes. "Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy ... Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."
Carr buttresses these observations by discussing the malleability of the brain and the impact of technology on the way we perceive the world. And he cites other literate types who no longer lose themselves easily in print. The article has unleashed a flood of confessions, online and in print, from erstwhile bookworms who have lost their deep-reading mojos.
Despite being a stone infojunkie myself, I find that I can still read deeply, and actually began reading fiction again in recent years. I do find it harder to write articles and columns for print than I used to because I have to stop to explain things instead of just linking to them the way I do online. And I often find myself incapable of doing just one thing at a time; I watch television with my laptop open, check e-mail and surf the Web during phone calls. I like to think of this behavior as "multitasking" or Continuous Partial Attention, because that makes it sound like I'm doing it on purpose, but I know that's not really the case.
I still like to zone out in front of the TV when I'm tired, and watch sports or catch up with good stuff like "The Wire" or "Weeds" on DVD. But scheduled television programming and TV news have all but vanished from my media diet. In this way I model the behavior described by another big thinker, author Clay Shirky, who said in a recent speech that people increasingly are abandoning the passive experience of television watching for more creative, or at least more interactive, online pursuits.
Carr tweaked Shirky with a clever post at his Rough Type blog, wondering how the upheavals of the '60s could have happened if everyone was anesthetized by "Gilligan's Island," and noting that a lot of Web activity (e.g., playing "World of Warcraft") does not exactly mark the emergence of a global collective intelligence. But Shirky's point stands: We can do different things now, and some of them are pretty interesting and useful. The time it's taken so far for all the contributors around the world to write Wikipedia, for example, is about the same number of hours that Americans spend watching commercials each weekend.
The hopeful scenario in all of this is that Shirky is correct -- that our rewired minds may lead us to a new era of creative freedom and achievement -- and that the changes observed by Carr will not come at too great a cost. Carr acknowledges that worries about the impact of technology are nothing new, with the printing press and written language itself the subject of hand-wringing in their day. "You should be skeptical of my skepticism," he says. I do worry that our attention spans are diminishing and that too many kids are growing up without learning to read deeply, but then again Amazon is selling a lot of its Kindle e-book readers, so maybe the literary canon and the critical mind will survive unto the next generation.
And maybe some of the things we worry about are less worrisome than they seem. I wish my 16-year-old spent more time reading and less time playing video games online, but I also see something interesting happening to my gamer: He's creating things on his own, like a clever instructional clip for the game "Age of Conan" that's been viewed a few thousand times on YouTube. The social value of helping people to become better Bear Shamans may be limited, but the skills required to do it well are not trivial. Elijah and his Web-native cohort may not read "War and Peace" (I hope they do), but they may produce its successor.
Carr ends the article with a warning about the intrusion of electronic media in all corners of our lives: "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." That, I think, is inarguable; it's the reason I impose a bedtime on my computer each night. Thoreau was hip to related truths long ago, and one of the blessings of summertime is the opportunity to rediscover them for ourselves at the beach or the mountains.
(I wrote this column straight through, without checking my e-mail or updating my blog even once. It helped that I was stuck in an airport without Internet access.)
© News & Record 2008