Sunday, August 8, 2010

Shallower and Shallower

Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, is must reading for anyone interested in the major transformation ignited by the rise of computers and the Internet in recent years—that is, if there are still people who can concentrate enough to read a full-length book. That’s the idea Carr is promoting, with statistics like these about reading (and “printed works” include books, newspapers, magazines, etc.):

"By 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the time that the average American over the age of fourteen devoted to reading printed works had fallen to 143 minutes a week, a drop of 11% since 2004. Young adults between 25 and 34, among the most avid Net users, were reading printed works for a total of just 49 minutes a week in 2008, down 29% from 2004." (p. 87)

And therein lies Carr’s major point: where the Gutenberg revolution (which around 1439 mechanized printing and made books possible for everyone) changed human brains by making them able to focus for long periods on a single subject (a book, a long article) and plumb its meaning, computers and the Internet are changing brains in the opposite direction. They are inducing brains to jump from one item to another, to become addicted to multiple messages and hyperlinks, email alerts, moving, flashing ads, and countless other media devices in such a way that even Carr, a book writer, confesses that he finds it difficult to concentrate in the old way. In short, says Carr, Marshall McLuhan was absolutely right when he wrote nearly forty years ago about television that “the medium is the message.” That is, the way we absorb material via our computers and the Internet is not neutral; the medium changes our brains, or more precisely, our brains, due to their astonishing neural plasticity, adapt to the electronic medium, and even merge with it: “we program our computers, and thereafter they program us.”

Though some of the science of brain plasticity Carr references is complex—involving the way our eyes convert symbols into meaning or the brain areas where the various functions of perceiving and interpreting occur at split-second intervals—the basic idea is simple to grasp because we are all familiar with it: “Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies.’” One of the main technologies for this interruption or distraction mode is the hyperlink—those typed portions in blue which signal that by clicking on one, you are immediately transported to an expansion (often the original article) of the point being made. Whether or not we click on the hyperlink, our brain is distracted, even if only to the extent of deciding whether or not to follow the link. Thus, as Carr notes, unlike a footnote, which can be ignored or saved for later (and only provides a reference), a hyperlink actually “propels us toward” the related material; it “encourage(s) us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them.” Rather than the linear, calm attentiveness fostered by reading a book, that is, reading online encourages us to jump around, to pursue one after another distraction. If this makes you think of TV commercials—which every parent notices absolutely transfix children with their colorful, high-volume quick cuts and false excitement—that is no accident. The idea is essentially the same: provide the brain with the hyped-up perceptual stimulation it automatically responds to, and you get “mindless consumers” of data. Carr refers to the Net as a “high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards,” thus turning us metaphorically into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” We go to our email, we go to our facebook page, we go to our news page or favorite website for constant updates about “what’s happening.”

The problem is that the type of intellectual activity this hyped-up perception fosters is not concentration or depth, but superficiality: “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” Our thoughts are scattered and our attention distracted. Rather than reading deeply in a way that promotes reflection or meditation, we become pursuers of endless data. Carr explains how the brain’s structure and architecture facilitate this, explaining recent research in memory formation and the two types of memory involved—short-term and long-term—and the brain changes that are involved in both. It makes for fascinating reading. For our purposes, it is only necessary to understand that short-term or working memory (what we remember for a few moments as we perceive it) can be overloaded, and that is precisely what happens in the “cognitive overload” that can result from Net activity:

"When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. We can’t translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers and our understanding remains shallow." (p. 125)

Carr cites several areas of research leading to the same conclusions: people who read linear text “comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” This is reinforced by studies showing that people on the Net spend an average of 19 to 27 seconds looking at a page before switching to a new one. That clearly does not encourage concentration or thinking, and a related study showed that, for over a hundred well-educated people, reading habits over the last 10 years for most had changed from in-depth reading to “browsing and scanning.” This is precisely what the Internet encourages. When we consider the rise of technologies like the Kindle and Apple’s I-Pad, where thousands of books are readable on a screen—with hyperlinks everywhere—and the Google Book project which has already scanned millions of books that are available for reading online, it is clear that reading from a physical book is well on its way to becoming an anachronism. Indeed, one of the more bizarre situations that Carr relates is the phenomenon of cell-phone novels that started in Japan in 2001, when young Japanese women “began composing stories on their mobile phones by texting.” They then uploaded them to a website, where others commented on them, added new ideas, and created the group novel, several of which became best sellers. One of the reasons for their popularity is their simple love plots and short sentences; one novelist named Rin explained that readers no longer like novels written by professional writers because their sentences seem “intentionally wordy” and the stories “unfamiliar.”

What this augurs for our future is anyone’s guess. Judging by the many studies Carr cites, the prospects are not good. As brain researcher Antonio Damasio notes about a study his lab performed, neural processes that relate to the “higher emotions” such as empathy and compassion are “inherently slow.” His study showed that though the brain reacts quickly to “demonstrations of physical pain,” more sophisticated processes of empathizing with suffering respond far more slowly, because of the time it takes for the brain “to transcend the immediate involvement of the body” and comprehend the “psychological and moral dimensions.” This could mean that the speed and distraction encouraged by the Internet (and everything else in our high-speed world) may well be eroding the uniquely human ability to respond deeply to others via those empathic moral responses that require “adequate time for reflection.” That would truly be a tragedy.

Lawrence DiStasi

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