Information Overlord

“The Net has become my all purpose medium… The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich and easily searched store of data are many…” (6)

In praise of what the internet has afforded him, Nicholas Carr can’t be too cynical when dissecting the flaws of our internet culture. Not without some self-examination, at least. The author of The Shallows set out to define one our generation’s most pressing issues in regard to the advent of this incredible technology: How our relationship with the internet is affecting us, and how the interlocking of our lives with this extraordinary access has radically shifted the human brain’s cognitive functioning.

But as he notes early in his book, Carr understands the privilege he and many others have received thanks to this immense amount of data. It is precisely how a lot of the information in the book was researched and fact-checked. Whether this truth is discernible to both Carr and the reader is menial, irrespective of the tale being told. The fact of the matter is that when you write a book about the harms of the internet and the kaleidoscopic access we have to quick snit bits of information, you end up relying on that very system you paint with caution.

So with a candid admission of his reliance, Carr then moves forward to surmise that our intake of information has always been under scrutiny. Using examples from the time of Aristotle and Plato, Carr displays the discussions of previous generations and how they might not be so different than the ones we have today. Plato’s disagreement with Socrates over the aptitude of an orator’s mind exemplifies the historical bouts between those who saw both advantages and flaws in information dissemination. In the same way that Plato argues that the writer’s mind presents the strengthening of the mind’s “logical , rigorous, [and] self reliant” facilities, we too discuss the ramifications of the internet’s affect on our mind’s mental capacities.

What hasn’t been overlooked in Carr’s tale – an aspect I find correctly prurient to any conversation we have about the internet’s range of influence – is how the neuroplasticity of the brain is altered when internet use becomes a pervasive aspect of our lives. Many report an inability to hold concentration, a loss of their patience with reading long passages, and other cognitive shortfalls, stemming from the ping-pong-like mannerisms of the internet. This, in return, fundamentally restructures the brain’s neural pathways in ways that seldom represent a positive alteration. My respect is paid to Carr for this inclusion of information, for I am student of both the literature and nueropsychological disciplines. In reading this book, I find myself in a constant state of admiration over the excellent control of language and the detailed cataloging of relevant research on the brain.

It is with great fear, sprinkled with hints of awe, that while I read this, I find myself fitting the mold of someone who should worry about their internet use and the subsequent underpinnings of such use. These worries are not exclusive to me, and I fear that while we all revel in the connectedness of our world, we may begin to forget the importance of turning away from our blue-lit screens.

Tackling Technology

I was taken aback when I read the first six chapters of “The Shallows”. It is the kind of book that makes you reflect on your own choices, especially how the Internet could be effecting my brain in such a profound way. Cognition is a part of my studies as a psychology major, and the book made me think about technology’s role in our brain processes. Perhaps it is affecting our brains more than we realize. I believe the role of inattention will become more clear when the millennials are as old as the baby boomers are now, and we’ve had a lifetime to observe what happens when you grow up with the Internet.

I am glad Carr started off with a firsthand account of his experience with inattention and then followed up with similar stories from his peers. I think setting the stage like that in the beginning of the book gave his idea a sort of legitimacy. I found it hard to fairly judge myself on whether I am more of a skimmer than a deep reader like Carr did.

“Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”(6-7)

I had not considered before the way the Internet trains our brain to receive information. As you scroll down a social media feed, you read and skim (or zip) as fast as your thumb can take you based on what you are interested in. I suppose in today’s world the overexposure to this task can reprogram us in a way, meaning it is harder to read when we try to be scuba divers again. The way Carr describes the Net as his “all-purpose medium” made me realize how true that is for me too. Internet research, GPS, my interpersonal connections on social media, and Apple Music are so ingrained into my life it would be hard to imagine getting through my week without them. I never considered how those things might affect my attention, because if I ever did I may have been forced to make changes. Inattention is a cause as well as a symptom of many psychological disorders if it is spread out over a long period, so it makes you think. The Internet is a double-edged sword, but it is one that we’re going to have to figure out how to manage in a healthy way as a generation.

 

 

 

Information Hungry

As a 20 year old student, I am stating the obvious when I say that I am a digital native. Although kids my age grew up reading books like Harry Potter and Twilight, we also grew up with Wikipedia and SparkNotes. Technology and the internet were present as I was growing up but now as a young adult our world is predominantly digital. As technology developed, my mind developed along with it. The plasticity of my mind is simply a product of my generation.

In chapter three of The Shallows, Carr talks about the newness of written and literary work. He describes how the transition from an oral world to a written world was especially intellectually demanding because of the amount of attention long-term reading required. Amongst this Carr makes the point: “Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible.” (63). I believe that this point is not only the epitome of my life but the lives of all digital natives.

When I buckled down to read The Shallows, Carr’s account of his difficulty concentrating while reading could not have been any more relatable as I found myself itching to grab my phone. I came to the realization that while I was reading this book, I was merely receiving information from Carr and my mind is accustomed to acquiring a myriad of information at once from different channels all within my phone. I can receive all different kinds of information whether it is an email from the school president or a CNN video someone shared on Facebook. My mind is always wanting more information because that’s what it’s used to. I speak for my generation when I say that we want to know and form opinions about everything.

At a time where information is so accessible, all I want to do is access it. We are either pulling information or information is being pushed toward us or this is occurring simultaneously. A device as small as our phones gives us the power to know what’s going on around us not just where we live or go to school but all over the world. Even at the beginning of a literary world, way before social media was created, our minds were craving more.

In this video, part of a Social Media Revolution series by Erik Qualmann, we learn about the advancement and the power of the Internet that Carr raves about. Our need for knowledge has created many platforms that are useful and even essential to our everyday lives. For example, through an outlet like LinkedIn, I can connect with not only people I go to school with but anyone I’ve met. I completely agree with the way Carr’s point of describing humanity’s need for awareness because I am a living testimony of it.

Our Mind Is Going

The subtitle of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows is a statement that has many varying angles to it. The subtitle reads, “What the Internet is doing to our brains”. In short, it is doing quite a bit, some good, some bad. But, the greater question that can be broken off from Carr’s writings is, what is the Internet allowing our brains to become? Carr begins the first chapter of the book with a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 1967 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. When writing about the film Carr specifically quoted a line uttered by HAL, the computer that controlled the ship our protagonist Dave was traveling in. Dave was unplugging and destroying HAL late in the movie, to which the computer responded, “Dave, my mind is going.” Carr would go on to utilize the quote through his first chapter in reference to the lack of focus the typical American mind has when in use of the Internet. However, I read this classic quote and felt that it could be interpreted in another way, an angle that Carr would address later on in his book. For me, the collective ‘mind’ of the average American citizen has been ‘going’ for quite some time in regards to inability to function on its own merit without the internet. Time and time again in conversation, debate, or any sort of interaction I have with friends, family, or classmates questions or facts are presented, and yet almost every time the people in the conversation are not the ones to answer or respond. The unique thoughts or beliefs of these people are not presented in response. These individuals always go right to their phones and the Internet. They can never think for themselves, the Internet must do the thinking for them. In the seventh chapter of The Shallows Carr states, “When we’re online, we’re often oblivious to everything else going on around us”; we shut off everything real and physical in our world and are reduced to merely interpreters of results of our Google search. The world created by the Internet in 2017 is one in which answers must be 100 percent accurate and rapid, so people are never left to think for themselves now or even trust their own intellect; we are consumed with the instant gratification our computers provide us with. In an article written by Daniel Wegner on Scientific American, located at http://bit.ly/2lIFtmS, Wegner states that he feels the ease of access to the internet at its resources, “… may not only eliminate the need for a partner with whom to share information—it may also undermine the impulse to ensure that some important, just learned facts get inscribed into our biological memory banks.” The Internet being at each and every person’s fingertips is, in a sense, taking our humanity from us. One could say, our mind is going. So in response to my originally posed question, the Internet is allowing our brains to become a screen; not capable of producing results or interaction, just capable of mirroring the search engine results found on the Internet. This is a reality Nicholas Carr understood and conveyed in The Shallows all too well.

Forced Focus

A quote that stood out for me in Carr came in the beginning of The Shallows when he stated, “…media aren’t just 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” (6). Prior to reading this book I never thought about, or considered, the fact that technology as a medium such as the internet, may in fact be the cause for the way I think today. Carr notices that before the Net became such a staple in his life his concentration on paper and reading in general was a lot greater. It made me begin to wonder, as someone who grew up with technology at the tip of my fingers for the majority of my life, has it effected my focus too? I began to think about when I was younger and if my ability to concentrate for long periods of time was stronger than it is now. But as I think about it, it’s harder to draw up answers. I can’t say that this has affected me in the same way as Carr. I wonder, do I lose concentration and check my phone now simply because I have the freedom to do so whereas the younger version of me did not? Do I only lose focus when it is a subject that doesn’t interest me? By growing up in the world of technology I realized it’s harder to decipher the effect it has had on my life, my brain, and my way of thinking but the idea is intriguing and something I will not be able to avoid thinking about from now on when using the internet as opposed to a book.

This article discusses a study by a neurology professor, Adam Gazzaley, who agrees that technology changes our ability for cognitive thinking. Our cognitive abilities coincide with our ability to focus, accomplish, and complete tasks. However, the article goes on to talk about multi-tasking and how we need to limit our distractions. I found it interesting that it doesn’t expand down the same path as Carr, most articles claim we need less distractions to concentrate better. To me, that just seems to be common knowledge since you cannot focus on one thing while fidgeting with multiple other tasks. The article then speaks about why we procrastinate and the thought is similar to Carr’s; we would rather enjoy a little snippet of information, or a fun tweets/posts rather than sift through an entire piece. Our bodies have grown used to processing information quickly and concisely by contacting so much stimuli at once that our brain finds it more difficult to concentrate on specific, longer writings. The article ends with saying we need to find a balance between our use of technology, but Carr has opened my mind to a deeper possibility- that our entire way of thinking has changed and the internet is the cause.

Facing Reality Behind Our Screens

After reading the first six chapters of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, I’ve already noticed myself becoming significantly more aware of just how much technology has worked its way into an alarming portion of our daily lives. As Carr bluntly states, “Even the experiences we have in the real world are coming to be mediated by networked computers” (97). Extending this thought to the equally powerful influence of cell phones and social media, I could not agree more. A particular instance came to mind when I first read this statement that made me realize I’ve seen this in action on a large scale. I’ve always been an avid concertgoer, and in the past five years or so of attending my fair share of shows, I’ve noticed it’s become increasingly difficult to find more than a handful of people, in an entire stadium full of attendees, that don’t have a cell phone in front of their face at any given moment. At times the glowing light of hundreds of thousands of phone screens has become so overpowering that I’ve witnessed some of the artists themselves implore the audience to put down their phones for even just one song and be in the moment with them. Granted, I myself have been part of this misguided majority before, falling victim to the temptation of recording a video to show friends or simply to have as a tangible memory down the road, but in those moments I’ve found myself consciously choosing to stick to one video and allow myself to be present for the rest of the concert. It saddens me to think of the firsthand experiences we’re all missing out on by seeing life through the secondhand lens of our phones rather than through our own eyes. If someone goes to a concert and experiences the entire night through a screen, is there really a difference between their experience and that of someone who wasn’t physically present but later watches the same video on their own? Constantly documenting our lives severely dulls our other senses as well; when taking a picture or recording a video you’re very often so focused on what’s happening on the screen in front of you that you see, hear, and essentially feel less of everything that’s actually going on around you.

A potential counter argument here may be that by documenting so much through screens and social media we have the opportunity to share our lives and our experiences with so many others; in doing so, however, the person doing the documenting is essentially forfeiting the opportunity to be present in that moment in favor of sharing it with those who were not. Which begs the question, how much of our own connection to reality should we be willing to risk for interconnectedness? At what point should the line be drawn? In an article published on NPR’s website, the author recalls a time in 2001—years before the first wave of smart phones and subsequent social media addiction—that he had the opportunity to witness an incredible solar eclipse and found himself surrounded by “a sea of cameras and tripods.” I found this image to be of considerable importance because it speaks to the fact that, although the compulsive need to document every moment seems to have increased tenfold in recent years, this dangerous phenomenon has been in the making far longer than many of us realize.

The Need to Be Plugged In

I allow my fingers to maneuver across the keyboard in almost record speed. It suddenly dawned on me that I did not know the exact age of Robert Downey Jr. and the desire to disclose this information was a matter of urgency; ten dollars were on the line that he was not over the age of fifty and I was not about to miss my opportunity to take my misinformed friend’s cash. I slightly tapped the enter key and my question was answered within nanoseconds–  just like that, I was plugged into the vast and ceaseless world of the Internet.

It had never really registered with me how constant my Internet usage was and how it became increasingly difficult to shut out the world when burning questions like ‘how old is x celebrity’ took over the entirety of my thoughts. The persistent need to be ‘plugged in’, whether that be looking up answers to trivial questions, reading up on current events in the New York Times, and/or continually checking Facebook every hour to see what my acquaintances were up to had been a part of the majority of my day. Without using the Internet, it feels as though the world is no longer turning.

Nicholas Carr’s understanding of this phenomena ignited a realization within me. “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention…It requires readers to place themselves at…’the still point of the turning world’. They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them” (64). It is incredibly difficult to veil the relentless world in which we live in, especially when we have the greatest distraction of all, the Internet. Reading has, indeed,  become a daunting task. Recalling the past, especially during my childhood,  I never had such a problem sitting down and enjoying a good book– reading for hours on end, sometimes even finishing the piece of literature. Now, I cannot sit to read one chapter without taking a “break” and checking my phone to reconnect myself back into reality. I couldn’t fathom the idea that my attention span was that of a squirrel, the realization that I could no longer simply immerse myself in a book was heartbreaking. Of course, I can most certainly try to alter my way of thinking, as Carr believes, we are altering our way of thinking every day, but it not exactly a simple task. I am by no means trying to portray the Internet in a negative light, it is this remarkable treasure that allows us to gain so much knowledge about the world, but also serves as a distractionary tool.

Carr really brings to this situation that most of us suffer from to the forefront. Comparing our predicament to those who struggled with reading during the Middle Ages, except, their issue was that of literary comprehension and taking the time to form their minds into literary ones. We already possess that ability, it’s the notion or question rather, are we able to leave the ever turning, ceaseless world for a moment? Are ten dollars really worth my inability to focus?