Nick Carr’s essay in the current Atlantic Monthly crystallizes a lot of what I’ve been feeling for a couple of years about how our use of the Net is changing us. Not co-incidentally I read the essay in the printed magazine whose non-hypertextuality I experienced as a feature, not a bug. (Nick writes: “Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.”)
Although Nick doesn’t invoke Linda Stone’s touchstone phrase “continuous partial attention,” that’s the effect he’s noticing and reacting to. Whatever you think about the consequences, it’s clear that the Net doesn’t invite sustained attention, deep reading, and quiet contemplation.
Of course neither did cable television which, in the pre-Internet era, taught us to click-slice our attention much more radically than was formerly possible. But TV was just entertainment. You didn’t have to turn it on to do your job. Most of us do have to turn on the computer. As Paul Graham points out in Disconnecting Distraction, that’s a problem. He solves it by disconnecting his main work computer from the Net. But as work increasingly entails the use of software, and as software migrates into the cloud, I wonder how feasible that will be for most so-called knowledge workers.
Although Nick acknowledges that he’ll be branded “a Luddite and a nostalgist” I think his essay is spot on. The Net surely is rewiring our brains. What should we think about that, and what should we do about it? These are important questions.
Since we can’t turn back the clock, and we wouldn’t want to even if we could, I guess we’ll have to learn to live happily and productively in the noosphere we are creating.
Part of the answer is to develop — and teach — strategies that enable us to graze on the information commons in the most effective ways. I work hard at that.
But we also need strategies that enable us to retreat from that commons, and to experience sustained attention, deep reading, and quiet contemplation.
On that front, technology sometimes gives back with one hand what it takes away with the other. I’ll admit that it’s sometimes been a struggle for me, in recent years, to find that retreat in books, particularly fiction, and particularly in printed form. But portable long-form audio has been transformative. This weekend, on several multi-hour bike rides, I listened to the LibriVox version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, beautifully read by Mark Smith (thanks Mark!).
It’s a great tale! I’d never have found the hours of couch time to re-read it, but I loved listening to it on my rides. (It was also nice to recall that I had written the software that simplifies downloading the book to a podcatcher.)
As I’ve said before, the quality of sustained attention that I find I can bring to long-form audio has been, for me, an unexpected benefit of great value. I’m sure our technologies are rewiring are brains in all sorts of ways, for better and worse. Often, those changes propel us into new and uncharted territory. But they can also help us reactivate ancient traditions, like oral storytelling, and rediscover their powerful neural effects.