As a writer and a human being, productivity and happiness are top priorities for me, and I was already aware of the negative effects of the Internet on my own cognitive processes and ability to feel fully alive when I read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains several years ago.
But The Shallows crystallized my thinking and convinced me to spend a lot less time “plugged in.”
Nicholas Carr’s book, a 2010 New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, details the many scientific studies that show how the near constant bombardment of our brains by information from electronic media is literally changing the structure of our brains and altering our lives – and not for the better.
As a writer, I need to concentrate for long periods of time. But it’s gotten harder over the last decade, harder at the same time I spend more of my life on the Internet for work projects and for what I’ve chosen to do online, like write this blog and my other blogs, have an active Twitter account, interact with friends on Facebook, read the news, follow a few stocks… the list goes on and on.
I often compare myself over the last few years with how I was in graduate school at the University of California, Davis getting my master’s in political science from 1987-1989. Granted I was younger then and highly motivated to succeed, but I was able to concentrate so much better 30 years ago than I can now.
A Question for You
If you remember a time before the Internet and smartphones, compare your ability to concentrate then with how well you concentrate now.
Well? Read on…
Key Points for Writers… And Everyone Else
These are excerpts from the notes I took on the book. I use the term Web broadly. It includes anything that connects you electronically to remote sources of information or stimulation, primarily the Internet itself and cell phone technology, whether it’s a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone. I use “we” and “us” primarily to refer to people who spend too much time on the Web and don’t focus on what they specifically need to get from it before getting off as quickly as possible.
1. When we are on the Web, we keep searching for new information to entertain us, to stimulate us – we keep clicking links and watching and listening. We set up e-mail alerts and obsessively check social media and other sites frequently, wanting to get that interesting tidbit as soon as possible. Often this becomes addictive behavior.
2. Using the Web decreases our ability to concentrate deeply for long periods of time. It instead trains us to crave new stimuli, making it difficult to focus for more than a few minutes. This is “the shallows.”
3. Web time decreases our ability to think deeply about an idea or a concept. Our brains can’t concentrate for more than a few minutes.
4. The Web physically alters our brain structure, affecting areas that deal with cognitive thinking and long-term memory storage. We can’t think as deeply, and we can’t remember very well what we were thinking about anyway.
5. The more time we spend on the Web, the more we train our brains to deal with information quickly and with little or no attention to wider connections. The result is that very little of this information makes it out of our “working memory” and into our long-term memory.
6. High levels of Web time decreases our ability to empathize with other people. Our connections with our friends and love ones weaken, and we miss out on a crucial emotion that binds us together and makes us human.
7. Computers and the Internet allow us to perform certain cognitive functions far more efficiently, but we make a Faustian bargain for those gains, and most people are not aware of exactly what they are trading away.
Nicholas Carr is a writer like I am, and like many of you are. Writers mostly work alone and can much more easily disconnect from the Internet, or cut connection time way back. Other people have jobs or lives that require them to be more connected.
Even so, no matter who you are, I hope you’ll examine how you use the Internet, and smartphones, and tablets, and all the other forms of technology that encourage your brain to be in a “shallow” state.
And I hope that you’ll discuss these ideas with your loved ones, particularly your kids and grandkids – they are the ones who really need to be at the top of their game if they are to deal effectively with the many challenges the future holds.
And think about what life truly means for you. Does your time on the Web make you feel more alive? Or less? More happy? Less happy?
Read The Shallows – and give it your full attention.
Update: I’m Creating a Course to Help People Reclaim Their Lives from the Online Overload
More details in late 2018. Stay tuned!
Thoughts? Suggestions? Please share them in the comments below…