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.

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Our Constant Rewiring

There is a certain example that Carr illustrates in his book that has sincerely grabbed my attention concerning the experiments done by Michael Merzenich on a group of monkeys. The discovery of the brains plasticity not even one hundred years ago has awakened an idea that Carr presents in his book that the brain is malleable and subject to change based on a constant feed of certain information. I find this incredibly fascinating when thinking about how much we have adapted and changed over time. With the aid of technology advancing rapidly within our lifetimes we have reached a point where we, as a generation, behave entirely different in many ways from the previous one, where that wasn’t nearly the case a century ago.

There is a passage on page 29 I find particularly interesting where, following his example of Merzenich and the monkey’s, Carr states: “The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be. Though different regions are associated with different mental functions, the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They’re flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need”. As Carr continues forward on this thought, how certain areas of the brain can increase or decrease in size depending on specific constant uses of things such as instruments, I can’t help but think to the future. Though throughout this book we see comparisons between how the author used to behave as a reader/writer compared to now with the modern day technologies, there is a constant comparison between the present and the past but less of a look towards the future. As our dependency on these advancements of today continue to separate us from the archaic techniques of yesterday, what lies ahead as these technologies continue to advance?

This plasticity of the mind that allows us to adapt our brains can also be a potential hindrance in the way of forming bad habits. With debates already raging over the usefulness vs. harmfulness of computers, phones, etc. pertaining to our lifestyle changes and their effects over us, how will our habits continue to either deteriorate or evolve as these technologies become more and more advanced? Even 50 years ago, few people would have believed that within their lifetimes such a  thing as “Virtual Reality” could be a possibility, this Time article discusses the rise and continual surge of VR technology, how it is opening up new possibilities in our technological world. In another 50 years, there’s no telling what kind of advancements we’ll see and how these things will change our habits from what they are now and what they used to be 50 years ago.

The Timelessness of Books

What resonated most with me in the first six chapters of The Shallows was the way Carr described the abilities of reading and writing books utilizing physical means versus utilizing technology. There were multiple passages in the text which coherently worked together to establish this point, beginning with the passage I marked on page 65,

“Even the earliest silent readers recognized the striking change in their consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in the pages of a book. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, “as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.”

The capacity of books to invoke certain emotions and spiritualities within ourselves is unachievable by technology, and was something I personally connected with most in my real life. I also understand this concept well because it connects to the way our thought processes change when using technology versus physical papers and writing utensils. The way the physicality of a book shapes our experience and bond, so does technology, but in a different way. Reading a physical novel or text slows down your senses and thoughts, while technology seems to speed them up. I’ve realized the ways technology has changed my thought process, especially after reading Carr’s research. He claims,

“…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 at my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”

I definitely can recognize this change in my mind as well, as it becomes more difficult for me now to be calm, take time and focus on what I’m reading. I’m always searching for something in the text, something that could be a potential question later on. Rarely anymore do I read slowly, with intent, or when I do I must make an effort to.

In my personal life, I have a Pinterest board where I pin a lot of book quotes, pictures and ideas. I find this helps me keep in touch with my book nerd side, which is interesting because I’m constantly using my phone or laptop to go on Pinterest and find these things. I found this pin would be interesting to contribute to the conversation, because it sort of comments on the abilities of books versus the internet. As vast of a place that the internet is, it’s impossible to escape from reality. In fact, these days, the internet is our face of reality, constantly spitting new news and information at us. On the other hand, the media of a book has potential to release you away from reality and bring you into another world separate from your own. I’ve always been a book lover, and I do believe reading and writing heightens consciousness. I related to Carr’s theories regarding this and found it interesting and reassuring that a book is truly timeless.