Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Swimming Out of the Shallows (a book review)

Today I reached the end of a unique experience. I finished a book which I found interesting and highly informative... but I completely disagreed with the author's conclusions. I don't dispute any of his facts, but in my opinion, he's adding two and two together and getting five. Or maybe he's adding two and two and getting negative four. Whatever it is, I think he's placing the blame for bad things in the wrong place, and I think he's seeing evil where evil doesn't exist. He's looking at Benjamin Franklin flying a kite and he's saying, that flimsy kite proves that there will never be a 747 carrying passengers across the Atlantic.

Before I go deeper into my thoughts on the book, I'd like to let the author of the book have his say. His name is Nicholas Carr, and the book is a highly-expanded version of an article he published in The Atlantic Magazine. Here it is. Go take a look... I don't mind. I'll wait right here until you get back.

The book I read is called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The basic premise behind the book is that the Internet has caused us to become shallow thinkers, incapable of deep, sustained thought. Carr says that he first started to notice this phenomenon in himself and in his friends. Journalists who no longer do thorough research, instead opting for the easy "click a few times on the Web and find what you need" method. Literature majors who no longer read complete books. That sort of thing. He believes that this is a trend which has to do with heavy use of the Internet, which is making changes to our brains as we surf, rendering us incapable of creating, or even following, longer trains of thought. He takes a great deal of time describing how the adult human brain, once thought to be quite set in its ways, is actually very flexible, changing all the time. Every time you or I do something, a physical change takes place in our brains, creating a memory or cementing a habit. He then goes into the history of writing, starting from brief scratches on ancient shards of pottery and proceeding through several technological changes: writing on clay tablets, the invention of paper, the refining of single-sheet paper into scrolls and eventually the codex (which we usually call a "book" - sheets of paper bound in a cover); the idea is that the computer is the thing that will usurp the role of the codex, in much the same way as paper usurped the role of clay tablets.

And, Carr believes, the Internet is designed with distraction in mind. Emails arrive. Tweets tweet. Ads flash and distract. Hyperlinks take our attention away from the text in which they are embedded. SMS messages come in our our phones. New blog entries hit our RSS readers. Spending our time being variously distracted by all of these things is, Carr insists, making changes in our brain that make it impossible to not be distracted. I agree with everything Carr says, up to that last sentence: I think that the Internet plays a role in our being distractable, but the Internet is not the perpetrator: the Internet is just the tool that the real perpetrator is using to make us distractable. The actual perpetrator is: ourselves.

A book is a highly static medium. I'm talking about a physical, bound book. It doesn't change on its own. It doesn't react to signals from elsewhere. If you tear a page out or drop it in the toilet, of course that will make a change to it, but it doesn't change on its own. Carr explains that before the codex was invented, human beings thought in shorter bursts. A verbal lecture might hold the attention of someone for a longer period, but other than that, your attention didn't really have to last any longer than it took to read the words scratched on that clay tablet. Because writing was time-consuming and difficult, it was generally reserved for extremely important (and brief) documents such as legal documentation. But when the bound book was invented, and particularly when the printing press came to be and books became quite cheap, anyone could have something in his hands that required many hours of sustained concentration to take in. This resulted in changes in the brains of the readers, strengthening their abilities to concentrate on one thing and filter out distractions. Carr had concluded that because our computers interrupt us almost constantly, the constant barrage of interruptions (which we respond to) train our brains to be distractable.

Let's think about that argument a bit. If ancient man was distractable because his (eat or be eaten) environment demanded it, and "codex" man became a "deep reader" because books demanded it, and "Internet" man is becoming distractable again because his computerized environment demands it, isn't that a return to the more natural state of mankind? I'm not sure there is a way to determine whether "distracted" or "immersed and oblivious to surroundings" is a better way to be, but it seems that it would depend on the lifestyle and needs of the individual. For example, someone who lived in a dangerous part of the world would be well-served by being distractable; it could save their life if something in the corner of their eye makes them instinctively duck.

And really, what is it about most books that makes it so helpful for us to immerse ourselves in that environment? When you have immersed yourself in a book, you have allowed one human being to insert whatever he or she wants directly into the world of your experience. That author is controlling, to some extent, your thoughts and your interpretation of events or facts. Is that actually so much better than a quick jaunt across the Web, picking up facts from many sources and building your own composite picture of reality? I say this as a pretty avid reader myself; I love books, but there are definitely advantages to having instant access to multiple trains of thought. The tyranny of one author controlling your thoughts for an extended period is replaced by many voices competing for your attention, giving you the chance to choose best-of-breed for yourself.

There are a number of reasons people have trouble reading long articles on the Internet, and it's not all because of their email "ding." Reading on a computer screen basically is not fun. I say this as a person who has read an entire book, in pdf format, on a computer. Backlit computer screens are hard on the eyes, and people don't necessarily have the most comfortable reading environment set up in front of their computers. It's not that people can't read a long article on their computer; it's that people don't want to read a long article on their computer. But given a strong enough desire, they can and will. I've done it many times. If you've read this far, you're doing it right now. It's completely possible. You are the captain of your own fate. I predict that as e-readers such as the Kindle and its brethren become more and more popular and inexpensive, people will read longer articles, and even books, much more frequently in digital formats. The technology will continue to adapt to become more comfortable for human beings, just like reading and writing technology progressed to ever more useful forms.

So, does Internet use make it impossible for people to read physical "codex" books? Of course not! You can't say that just because you've trained yourself in such a way that it is difficult for you to focus, your brain is ruined for life and you'll never be able to focus again. The mere existence of technologies does not force you to enslave yourself to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And their existence doesn't mean that you even  have to use them at all!

I like candy. Most everyone does. I'd like to eat lots of candy! But if I eat a lot of candy all the time, my body will become sick and fat. Candy is okay in moderation, but too much is too much. Burger King is convenient and always available, but if I eat Burger King every day, all the time, I'm going to become very unhealthy. Burger King is okay sometimes, but it shouldn't become your constant diet. Too much is too much. And if your constant mental diet is making your brain sluggish and fat (or hyperactive and ADHD), maybe it indicates that you are being irresponsible with your use of the technology. The tech is not at fault; your bad habits are.

And really. Distractions are nothing new, and they are not limited to technology. I spend about an hour and a half every weekday reading physical books on my bus commute to and from work; and believe me, distractions are everywhere. Someone behind me having a loud conversation on a cell phone. People getting on and off. Things outside the bus. Announcements by the driver of which intersection we're at. Some of these distractions are important for me to respond to (for example, I need to remember to get off the bus when I get to my stop!) Some of them are unimportant, and some are just a nuisance. But I get through my books eventually, because I've learned to tune out the unimportant distractions. The same goes for the Internet; I've unconsciously learned to tune out the things I don't need to concern myself with, and only respond to distractions that matter. In fact, sometimes I tune out distractions that do matter, which is why I have to change my "new email" sound every once in a while... I've spent whole days not noticing that I have urgent items in my inbox!

Let's talk about some of those distractions. Let's talk about that email indicator, that Facebook ding on your phone, that text message from @AplusK on Twitter. Are they distractions? Do they break up your work day and keep you from concentrating? Yes? They do? How about this: TURN THEM OFF. If they're a problem, eliminate them. The distraction is not forcing itself into your life; you have brought it on yourself. Eliminate your own distractions. Simplify. Your brain will respond to that, just like it responds to the opposite. If our brains are so elastic that they can be negatively changed by negative environmental factors, then they are also elastic enough to be positively changed by better environmental factors.

It's nonsensical to blame distractability on information overload, too, although it's true there is a real glut of information available to each of us on the Internet, information about pretty nearly anything you can think of. One thing I've seen computers bring a huge change to in my own personal life is Bible study. When I was a kid, Bible study was, obviously, all about books. If you wanted to study a topic, you looked it up in commentaries, topical dictionaries such as Vine's, or study Bibles such as the good old Thompson Chain Reference. You could also take a word-based attack, looking up your word in Strong's Concordance (which contained every English word in the King James Bible, along with original language dictionary for translation assistance). It was kind of slow, but it could get you where you wanted to be. Fast-forward to today, when that Strong's Concordance lookup that took you two hours with the book can happen on your cell phone in seconds. But do you really want to find every verse in the Bible that contains the word "love," or do you want to learn about a specific kind of love? How much God loves people? How a husband loves his wife? How a man loves his neighbor? For that, your speedy word-based lookup is only a good starting point. Those commentaries, topical dictionaries, and other study helps are all out there in digital form, accessible at the click of a mouse, but to really understand the Bible, you have to go deeper. You have to do it on purpose. You have to not take the easiest way out. The problem is not a glut of information; the problem is intellectual laziness. The same goes for journalists that go for the "easy kill" without really checking out their facts (like this utter nonsense, which I heard reported last weekend on my local TV news... reporting the 823-year urban legend as fact). You have to actually care enough to take your time, even on a computer, or eventually you're going to wind up looking like a fool. You have to be wise in your use of the tools at your disposal; scatterbrained research leads to scatterbrained thinking.

Let's talk about communication, because Carr seems to think that digital communication is de-humanizing us because when we text message or IM, we are not face to face with the person we're communicating with. Hogwash. Consider people who, in centuries past, sustained long-distance romantic relationships via letters which had to be carried across oceans in ships. Consider people who stay in touch today with distant loved ones via telephone. Those lovers with the quill pens would have loved to have been able to pick up a telephone, but they used the technology at their disposal. Communication is communication, no matter what form it takes, and over time, communication becomes more human and personal, not less, with the introduction of better and better technology. Today I can start up Skype and see and hear moving video of a friend on the other side of the world. For free! I can call or text my wife's cell phone, and no matter where she is (within coverage, of course) I can reach her. In the past year or two I've become involved again in the daily lives of friends I haven't seen for 2 decades, via Facebook. Without those technologies, none of that communication would be possible at all. Okay, so it's digital; that means that the communication is carried on electronic impulses instead of through the air or in an envelope on a ship. It's not a sign of the decay of human interaction; it's a sign that people will communicate, and if it takes a computer to do it, so be it.

Carr also seems to think that there is a chance that people will try to (and already are trying to) sort of "outsource" their human memory to computer memory. But then he explains himself that that is impossible, and gives the physical reasons why it is impossible. Your brain, despite what may have been taught to you in fourth-grade science class, is not a computer. It's not even very much like a computer. Computer memory is not like organic memory, if only because computer memory is digital and organic memory is not digital. You can have a strong memory and you can have a distant, hazy memory; a computer can only have "yes" or "no". Either the computer knows it, or it doesn't. And most of your memories aren't things that you could even figure out how to offload into a computer anyway; your brain is full of pictures, sensations, smells, sounds, ideas, impressions... all things that cannot even be communicated to a computer, and even if you "offload" them to a computer somehow, they remain in your brain as well. The only thing computers are really good at is "computing" (math), and they do a fairly good job as storage devices for data which is much less complex than the things inside your brain and mine. Tools like Evernote can help you remember your shopping list or the date of the Gettysburg Address or what your kids want for Christmas, if you store those things there, but those tools can't help you remember how the meadow behind your house during your childhood smelled in springtime. I know they call it "computer memory." It's not. It's storage space for ones and zeroes.

Does the Internet cause some kind of brain damage? You might argue that; every single thing you do all day long causes minute changes in your brain, and if those changes are unwanted, you might call them damage. Is this damage irreversible? Not according to Carr's book... it says that the human brain is quite flexible and adaptable. The argument that your brain is so flexible that Internet use changes your brain, but then that the changes are permanent and damaging, is circular, self-defeating, and illogical. At any point you can choose to change your environment. Ironically, in the chapter on "how I wrote this book," the author tells about how he did just that... shut off the email and the IM and the feed reader and Facebook and Twitter, and re-taught his brain to focus. Even he, the arm-waving paranoid alarmist, found that all he had to do to work with no distractions was to remove the distractions. Why is this rocket science? Turn off the "ding" and your brain remembers how to concentrate on one thing at a time. The "can't" automatically becomes a "can."

My best take-away from this book is that it has reminded me to re-examine my own work habits. What is distracting me? What do I need to cut back on so I can work uninterrupted? Am I wasting whole days by remaining distracted from morning to night? More than once since I began reading the book, I've considered my environment and adjusted things, or turned things off, or un-followed or un-friended. or whatever I needed to do in order to simplify. That's certainly been a good, helpful thing. The information in The Shallows is fascinating, but the freaking out is unwarranted. If the brain is as flexible as the book says, it can snap back from almost anything... including Gmail and Twitter. Take charge. Don't sabotage yourself by creating a hostile Internet environment! Use a little common sense, and the Internet will be your friend and not your enemy.