Skimming the Surface

The Shallows

Sometimes I think I’m adopting the attention span of my students. My bookmarks include a handful of the tangible sort between pages of unfinished books sitting on the nightstand. Rather than read one from start to finish, I read them all in chunks at a time. Most of the news and magazine articles I read are online, and often shorter than the type that leaves me with plum-colored fingertips. I recently discovered that I’m not alone.

“Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Nicholas Carr’s latest book, The Shallows, includes a personal account of brain change similar to my own. Carr takes an in-depth look at the physiological and sociological effects of technology and internet ubiquity.

Unlike today’s kids, often texting more than speaking, Generation X-ers and Baby Boomers transitioned from “Analogue Youth,” to “Digital Adulthood,” which Carr describes in acute detail. As the brevity of text increases in tweets, online articles and text messages, Carr suspects our creative capacity could be shrinking. The ability to multitask is widely viewed as requisite in today’s job market, but when people do many things at once, Carr believes they are unable to delve deeply to discover novel perspectives and ways of thinking.

He presents both sides of the technology debate within a timeline of intellectual maturation. On one side, “determinists” such as Ralph Waldo Emerson warned against the negative effects of technology, while “instrumentalists” such as David Sarnoff and James Carey tended to “downplay the power of technology.” The Shallows’ central message is that technology can impede intellectual evolution.

In 2003 I began to question how technology was affecting me, and society as a whole. I gave away my television, and haven’t had one since. Although I read more than ever, the internet has unequivocally changed the way my brain works. But I’m not sure I’ve lost anything. Collectively, bits of quickly digested text form a latticework of understanding like the dendritic web of my brain.

For example, a Japanese maple stands in my front yard, so yesterday I briefly read a description of Acer palmatum in the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests. That night, I skipped around a collection of poems by Pablo Naruda, and found a new favorite entitled “All the People Who Are Now Red Trees.” I’ll never look at that maple the same way.


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