photo by feuillu
NICHOLAS CARR IS WORRIED that his mind is going — or at least, that the capacity for concentration he once possessed is slowly evaporating. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Carr expresses legitimate concern that Google, and the medium of the Internet in general, is drastically altering the way we think. The fragmented nature of information on the web and the high potential for distraction means we now skim more than we read, he observes, gorging ourselves on information that we rarely take time to digest:
Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf 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. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.
The result, argues Carr, is that we are losing are ability to analyze and arrive at insight while reading. While this new trend in thought is disturbing (if not surprising) in and of itself, the picture becomes even more frightful when the effects are extrapolated into other life experiences — like, say, traveling to another country.
The fear here is not that travelers will actually want to experience a country in bite-size chunks, but that we may be unwittingly yielding our ability for deep travel; our sensitivity to feeling lost, alive and lucid. If we keep heading in this direction, there is the danger that after touching down in a new place we will glean what we assume is its meaning and value, and then simply move on.
As my own thoroughly-Googled mind becomes trained to decode one chunk of information after the other, I’ve noticed that slowing down and appreciating where I am seems to be getting harder — no matter how stunning my surroundings may be. Tuesday night, as I sat along banks of the Han river looking towards the lights of northern Seoul, my thoughts continued to flutter. I felt unable to reflect or settle in the moment, without first making a considerable effort to breathe and meditate….and even then my concentration was fuzzy.
Obviously, as print culture fades the world over, there is a more tangible risk — the demise of the independent bookstore. These shops, once venues for mingling intellectuals and quiet gateways for travelers seeking a dose of local flavor, are rapidly disappearing due to a combination of free content available on the Internet and the dominance of stores like Borders. Monocle recently reported that even in Beirut, small booksellers are struggling as massive chains swallow the market.
It would seem then that taking the time to unplug and read a book is not so much of a luxury as a necessary act of self-preservation. We owe it to ourselves to reconnect with our own thoughts, and to not allow the deeper meanings of our experience to slip away due to dulled senses.
Edited June 26, 2008