I recently finished reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains—what a great book!
I read it for the reasons you might suspect. I’ve noticed that a lot of my reading has gone online, and I’ve also noticed that I don’t seem to have the patience for long books that I once did. Is that lack of patience because I have no paper to write, no threat of an F on my permanent record? Or have I really lost some focus?
I’m still not sure. But I know a lot more about how our brains work, how we store information, the ways we’ve used new technologies—lots of science in this book.
Carr believes that the Internet takes humans on a very different path than we’ve traveled before. Carr notes, “The Net differs from most of the mass media it replaces in an obvious and very important way: it’s bidirectional” (p. 85). So, unlike a television, where we observe passively, most of us interact with the Net, in some way. Even if we think we only read the newspaper online, most stories these days are full of hyperlinks, which encourage us to interact.
I realized as I was reading Carr’s book that I tend to read an Internet article all the way through, and then I go back and clink on the interesting-sounding hyperlinks. But I suspect I’m reading in an increasingly unusual way.
As an artist, I was intrigued by the way the Internet has shaped us. Carr talks about the way many of us are experiencing performances differently, now that we can take our Internet connected devices to the theatre with us. We can record, we can tweet a review, we can communicate to each other.
As a writer, I’m always interested in the future of books. Carr talks about the writing process, about how once upon a time, a book was finished: it was printed, bound, and rarely revised. He says, “In the digital marketplace, publication becomes an ongoing process rather than a discrete event, and revision can go on indefinitely” (p. 107).
What does this mean? Carr speculates: “It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitudes toward their work. The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed” (107).
And then, again, we return to the bidirectional nature of writing in an Internet context. It’s easy for you to download my creative piece and to interact with it, no matter how protected it is. In some contexts, this ability could lead to wonderful artistic works. In other contexts, the ability scares me. Carr doesn’t delve into this subject as much as I would like.
The Shallows returns again and again to warning us that we’re not as capable of multitasking as we think. Every time we have multiple windows open, every time we click on a hyperlink, we’re reducing our capability for attention.
Carr doesn’t do much in terms of making recommendations, but it’s not hard for me to make some. We all know that it’s important to unplug—in all senses of that word. Our ancestors knew the importance of a time out—they may have called it Sabbath or the week-end or vacation. We need to reclaim time without electronics.
Turn off your GPS and drive. Leave your cell phone behind. Declare that for certain hours of the day, you will not be online. Don’t click on the hyperlinks until you’ve finished reading a story. When you’re in real time with real people, turn off the electronics and really be present for each other.
And in terms of writing, write what you want to write, with the assumption that you'll have some kind of audience. In this week-end of Harry Potter mania, I think of the time when Rowling was writing that first book. Naysayers would have told her that children didn't read anymore, that adults had ceased reading, that the publishing industry was about to collapse. What if she had listened?
I say this because I have an idea for a novel or maybe a series of novels. When I was young, my favorite plot was not the apocalyptic plot you might have expected me to like--no, it was later that I liked to see the world smashed up. No, when I was a kid, I loved the plot that had a young girl, a pre-teen, discovering an interesting old book of spells and potions and charms. This week, I've had a vision of that plot drafted onto a grown up plot. What if we had a woman in her 40s, mid-career, mid-life, who discovers an old, black book in the attic? She could experiment, and satirical chaos could ensue!
And what if I wrote a series? The book could travel--next stop, nursing home, where aging baby boomers create chaos!
So, can we still dive deep or are we resigned to the shallows? I'm betting that we can swim wherever we'd like!
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