I have been reading a really fascinating book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Building upon the insights of media and communications guru Marshall McLuhan who most famously proclaimed, “The media is the message”, Carr makes the very compelling case that information technologies are not neutral in the way they convey information but actually rewire our brains through their continued use. Carr writes a fascinating history of information and communication from the first written words on clay tablets in ancient Samaria to some of the first written alphabetical languages such as Greek to the invention of paper, books and the printing press. With each technological jump in media there has also been changes in the way that humans think. Carr writes of how we are in a major revolution between linear thought, largely a byproduct of reading books and printed media, to nonlinear thought brought about by the internet with its much more concise bits of information hyperlinked and connected to worlds of other information. He makes the case that for all of the benefits of being able to efficiently sift through information through the web we are losing our ability for deep reading and reflection. As I read this book I can’t help but think of an illustration of this phenomenon in Sarah Palin’s now infamous interview with Catie Couric in the 2008 presidential campaign.
In September 2008 Catie Couric questioned Palin on what newspapers she regularly reads. Her now famous answer “most of them,” “all of them” and “any of them” quickly became fodder for blogs and political pundits, particularly those on the left, who saw this as a major strike against her ability to lead the country. But I found myself wondering why this was such a big deal. Sure I found it odd how she got so uncomfortable trying to answer that question and to come up with some kind of answer as to where she gets her news, but I seriously wondered if reading print newspapers has anything to do with leadership ability. The question seemed to me to be very outdated, very behind the times. I remember thinking to myself, “who actually reads newspapers these days anyway when you have the internet?” That question seemed about as relevant as asking Palin what top 5 CDs might have in her CD changer.
As a musician and recording artist I am a big fan of full albums and rarely buy single songs through iTunes yet I know I am in the minority. As much as I may mourn the loss of full albums on the iPods of most Americans, I certainly would not judge a person on their lack of CDs or full albums. Perhaps Palin would have done better to answer the question with “Who reads newspapers anymore anyway? I get my news from the internet and TV the way most other red-blooded Americans do!” While that kind of answer might have been spun to ridiculous lengths by her opponents, it would have certainly expressed solidarity with the majority of the voting public (statistics bear this out).
I have to admit that I have never been much of a newspaper reader, even before the internet. The truth is that I have read a whole lot more articles that have appeared in newspapers via the web than I ever did before the Web. I reckon that even my thoughts on this issue demonstrate how much this technological revolution has affected the way I think. While I haven’t finished The Shallows yet (partly because I keep checking my email and Facebook status updates ;-), I am quite certain that Carr is on to something. While I certainly have benefitted from the wealth of information at my fingertips, I am finding that it is getting increasingly harder to make room for reflection and contemplation in my life or to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. If Carr offers any solutions to this phenomenon, I haven’t read them yet but hopefully I won’t bee too distracted by the technologies in my life to read this book to the end.
So here’s a couple of questions to wrestle with:
- When the technology of our modern world is ever pushing us to distractions and fragmentation how might we be able to succeed in carving out more space for reflection and contemplation?
- Is there anything that works for you in this regard?