The Mind-Transforming Power of the Internet, and Other Slightly Disturbing Thoughts

Nicholas Carr of the Atlantic Monthly has recently written a must-read piece on the suspected effect of Internet usage on one’s mind. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” includes a number of provocative selections, including the following, each of which I’ll comment on.

The author’s current struggle to concentrate“Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. 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.”

I have seen this happen in my own life, though I have to read consistently and am thus able (forced?) to counteract this tendency. Without a constant diet of reading, though, I’m guessing that most people who don’t naturally love reading will drift away from the practice. We’re all becoming skimmers, some of us professional, some of us not. As a race, we seem to be morphing into people incapable of sustained attention.

The effect of surfing on the mind–“As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive 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. My mind now expects to take in 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.”

This is the way many people seem to operate. My blog posts (including this one) are generally long, relatively speaking. But what is long? Most of them take about two-three minutes to read. The average time people spend on my site, however, is far less than two-three minutes. Part of this is because I do very little to try and hook visitors. Part of it is because people are so technologically restless nowadays that they can’t sit still long enough to read a few lousy paragraphs. What does it say about one’s ability to concentrate and discipline oneself when attention cannot be sustained for sixty seconds? (Alternate (discomfiting) theory: site is not worthy of much attention. Needfully discarded.)

Testimony from a University of Michigan prof: “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

Okay, I give up. If a professor at one of America’s elite universities, a school that requires students to read thousands of pages of material before they graduate, cannot read for a minute, how can we really expect anyone to do so? We may not all be in the same boat as this person, but we should take note here. What, exactly, does continual web-browsing and email-checking do to one’s ability to concentrate? Does it, perhaps, shred it?

Fascinating story about Nietzsche and the typewriter“One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

You know, this is a sterling point in an excellent article. I’ve noticed that writing a letter on nice paper–something I rarely do–tends to draw the best out of me, literarily. I slow down and concentrate. I muse over my words. I don’t drop in the chair and bang something out. I measure what I say and attempt to make it excellent. Though I try to do the same thing when I write on the computer (papers, sermons), it’s just not the same. I suppose that when convenience and contemplation square off, convenience wins just about every time. The motto of the age?

A sober closing assessment“Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

We need to think about this one. When we surf the web, we’re not participating in a passive forum. We’re swerving into the Autobahn. It’s not a passive medium. It is the definition of active. It has a pace to it, a feel, that encourages us to blitz through page after page, entry after entry, blog after blog. It doesn’t every really urge to slow down and think. It explodes our senses with content. Honestly, how does even the best book stand a chance?

I personally think that we who want to think and use our minds for God’s glory should preserve the careful reading of books. We should not buy into a culture that encourages us to prey on information and art. We should instead buy books, read them contemplatively, and pattern our mind to think hard and well about things. We should buy books not simply to take material out of them–a worthy act, one I’ve been paid to do–but to read them, to sit with them, and let them teach us. We should consider good books like wise, delightful grandparents, who require concentration, patience, and investment to benefit from. If we want to learn and to be able to concentrate on myriad tasks, we should not treat our “grandparents” with insolence by beginning a conversation with them, extracting what information we want, and then quickly and rudely leaving them. No, we should sit with them, talk with them, argue with them (it’s an analogy, not a reality), and learn from them. Book-reading that abuses books should be avoided; book-reading that ingests information, mulls over it, should be encouraged.

Two final notes. We should be careful about the Web. No, not just in terms of sex and time drain, though we must handle these things carefully. We should be careful about how much time we give to the web and to email. Are we a slave to our inboxes? Do we constantly surf the web, skimming page after page with a dull-eyed gloss? Are we letting the web shape us and the way we think as it robs us of our ability to concentrate and discipline ourselves? We’ve got to think about these things, and discipline our lives such that we, not the web, have mastery.

Finally, we should think about these matters in light of our churches. What kind of culture do we create in our church through the use of technology? How is an average church service going to seem to the constant web-surfer and email-answerer? Furthermore, if we structure the service to be palatable to such people, what damage do we do to our people? Do we slowly ease out of them the ability to think hard and focus well? There are few easy answers here, but these are questions that churches and pastors and laypeople should think about.

Is Google making us stupid? I’d answer that, but I’ve got some emails to write, a few blogs to read, a book to gut–would you excuse me?

  • Al

    Okay, I waded through this, while flirting back and forth between this and that. By the way, what was this blog about this time, kind of hard to understand. :)

    I have recently become a member of facebook. Now am I cool, or what? One aspect of this that has struck me is how much shallowness and time wasting seems to be going on. Truly the internet may build relationship, even deep ones, but to build and live in a world that is a cyber world is not good. God does require our time.

    A good reminder.

    Al


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X