Swimming in the Shallows

I’m a little hesitant to jump into another discussion about Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, since I’m self-conscious about the fact that it’s in my top 3 Books I Somehow End Up Writing About Despite Never Having Read Them. But as unqualified as I am to critically assess Carr’s book as a whole, I am qualified to critically assess Emily St. John Mandel’s essay about the book. That’s because I’ve read it (the essay). Because it’s shorter. And free.

If Carr were to read this blog post, he might take the “shorter” part as evidence of his thesis: that large swaths of our society, having grown accustomed to living and breathing the Internet, have undergone a basic cognitive shift. We have become very good at organizing and sorting through rapid-fire packets of discrete, unrelated information, Carr argues, at the expense of our capacity for extended reflection and meditation. So it’s much easier for the 21st century digital boy to process 2/3rds of St. John Mandel’s essay, a few tweets about the upcoming midterm elections, a Facebook photo gallery and a YouTube video of a dog skateboarding than it is for that same digital boy to sit down and force himself to read a single chapter of Carr’s book without checking his iPhone.

(That’s not why I didn’t read Carr’s book — it’s just that I have a lot of other books I want to read. It probably is, however, why I will henceforth refer to St. John Mandel as “Emily.” I don’t know her or anything, but three self-contained words with capitalization and punctuation is a lot for my Internet-addled brain to get my fingers to type out every single time I want to refer to a person. It’s like trying to write a post about the White House in which you must always refer to the president as “President Barack Hussein Obama.”)

I was initially dismissive of the argument, and while my position is softened somewhat, “remapping the neural circuitry” still sounds like an overstatement to me. If the brain is as plastic as Carr suggests, how much reprogramming does it really need to switch from Twitter mode back to epic-poetry-and-long-woodland-hikes mode? When I spent two months on the road with limited Internet access, I was astonished by how quickly my brain adjusted to long, linear days of reading, walking, and idle conversation. Same thing happened to everyone else on the trip. My guess is the majority of people would see a similar result.

But while I’m skeptical about cognitive rewiring, I do think it’s possible for certain cognitive muscles to atrophy. That’s the true danger: not that Internet overuse will strip us of certain capabilities, but that it will give us too many alternatives to exercising them. To me, that seems like an unambiguously bad thing, but Emily doesn’t sound all that concerned. She writes:

But there, in the quote above: to me most valuable. The point, it seems to me, isn’t whether the Internet is “good” or “bad” for our brains. The Internet has changed us, just as the printed book and the typewriter did. The Internet sharpens us and makes us faster thinkers, more adept at shifting between tasks, even as it erodes our ability to focus on a single topic, a single work, for long periods of time. The point is that whether you think the Internet is “good for your mind”, or exactly the opposite, depends on your values.

I wouldn’t want to give up the sheer vertiginous over-stimulation of walking down a Manhattan street, any more than I’d want to give up the Internet. I live in a metropolis for a reason. But what if your work depends on the ability to fall into a state of deep focus for long periods?

Carr is the author of two other books, and has written for The New York TimesThe Atlantic, and other publications. His degrees are in literature and language. Although he’s done his research, it seems to me that he’s approached this problem primarily as a writer—in other words, as someone whose profession requires the ability to close oneself in a room and remain utterly focused on the business of researching and completing a manuscript for hours at a time. For a writer, an inability to focus for long periods on the work at hand is at best an impediment, at worst a disaster.

The only problem there is that everyone shares at least one common responsibility: being a person. Exactly one thing separates a person from just another organism, and that’s our ability to look at ourselves and form judgments about our own thoughts and behavior. The ability to do that well — to be really self-aware — can give you a tremendous leg up as far as being good at being a person goes. But also demands a huge amount of focus; and it’s the sort of work that can be painful, scary, and oftentimes dull.

Of course, the Internet is rarely dull, and even 4Chan isn’t all that painful or scary compared to the prospect of burrowing through whatever serious darkness you’ve got stored up in the recesses of your mind. Instead of difficult, scary and convoluted, the Internet can be pleasant and numbing in a uniquely addictive way. Plus, when you emote online — and here I want to be careful to separate mere “emoting” from truly self-reflective work — the feedback and validation, both positive and negative, that you receive from the greater online community can make it almost feel like you’re spilling out your guts.** But when you project an image of yourself to people who only know that projection, nobody’s going to force you to dig deeper. The most qualified person to squint past that projection is you. To just work on refining it is an evasion of responsibility.

So I think the key here is to strike a balance. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with spending a lot of time on the Internet (or at least, if there is, remaining in deep denial about it is what empowers me to continue blogging). But for god’s sake, read books. Take long walks. Keep a journal — not a blog but a journal, something that other people can’t read. Even if the Internet is the shallows, it’s a vast enough pool to spend plenty of time exploring. We’ve just got to remember to do some daily laps in the deep end.

*#2 is David Shields’ Reality Hunger, and #1 is probably The New Testament.

**In a good way.

Swimming in the Shallows
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7 thoughts on “Swimming in the Shallows

  1. Politically, the internet is a powerful reinforcer of what used to be called “sound bites” and now are “talking points” — short, nearly content-free statements with more emotional than intellectual impact. Political blogs are typically echo chambers rather than arenas of competing ideas, those engaging in what passes for discussion of issues of the day refuse to concede even the tiniest point and view savage fiskings on collateral issues or mispunctuations as Waterloo-like victories, and political news sites pump out about 100 times as much gossip than policy.

    Culturally, the internet atomizes our broader culture — we find more people like ourselves and with common interests to ourselves, at the expense of less interaction with other people who might be different and thereby challenge us into expanding and broadening our view of the world rather than specializing and focusing. Having 10,000 “friends” on Facebook — people you don’t actually know or ever interact with out in meatworld or, for that matter, who you don’t actually know are even real people — is not the same thing as a rich and active social life.

    Cognitively, it’s hard to imagine how ready access to resources like Wikipedia and the use of 140-character bursts as primary modes of communication will not alter (I would say degrade) one’s ability to retain and assimilate large amounts of information and process that information into new thoughts. Powerpoint (particularly badly-executed Powerpoints) as a tool of formal education is a significant contributor to this phenomenon as well.

    This isn’t peculiarly the technology’s fault — you can find deep thoughts, interact with people different than yourself, and challenge your intellect on the Net too. But that’s not how people have actually used the new technology; they have raced to create and then embrace what is easy, familiar and comfortable to them in the new medium.

    Ned may point out that this is merely “new” and “different” but gloss over the value judgment of whether it is good or bad. I’ll dive in where angels fear to tread, though: the internet has become a force which diminishes our collective ability to think deeply and flexibly.

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      • @North, but weren’t Gutenberg’s critics right? The wide distribution of moveable type did decimate a tradition of oral and musical transmission of knowledge and folklore; it did result in profound cultural shifts, of internationalization, secularization, democratization, and other things which we today consider to have been net benefits to society. At the time, they were considered dangerous and subversive.

        , agreed that the good old days weren’t really so good. Lots of superficiality back then too. But things are different now. No one would listen to the Lincoln-Douglas debates today; they were long and intellectually dense and filled with respectful disagreement but people thought of them as the best entertainment out there and flocked for miles around to hear them. The Federalist Papers, if circulated today would get tagged with three “I like this” thumbs-ups and about fifty “TLDR” comments.

        I don’t deny that the massively-disseminated electronic media possesses the power to illuminate, educate, and accelerate our society as a whole. But I don’t see evidence that we’re there yet and I see some evidence that we are backsliding. Now that Netflix and other streaming videos account for 20% of global internet bandwidth, that means that only 79% is being used for pornography. On a more serious note, I seem to recall a lot of discussion here about a phenomenon known as “epistemic closure” and which is not confined to either the right or the left. What we have today, to channel Chris Hedges, is only the illusion of wider-spread cultural, intellectual, and political literacy.

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    • @Transplanted Lawyer,

      I am skeptical of that final claim. Sure, maybe 90 percent of people who read blogs aren’t as engaged as the well-read people of yore. But we have a MUCH larger cohort of people who are engaged on at least some level. The average pipefitter and housewife in 1950 had no access at all to the New York Times or the inner machinations of the national Academy of Sciences. At least SOME people avail themselves of such things today.

      Also, I suspect that the actual NUMBER of people who sat around reading Proust in the good old days was vanishingly small. See, a whole bunch of people couldn’t read at all.

      I woudn’t be surprised to learn that the number of people deeply engaged in intellectual reading has actually gone up in recent decades. The number of PhDs awarded would seem to be some proof in that regard. So what we have is a stable or growing number of intellectuals and a wide swath of people who have more access to serious stuff than ever, even if they don’t always engage in it.

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  2. The other day, we were going out to dinner with a couple of other couples. The first couple showed up and we were waiting for the other couple and worried because we had heard that his dad was in the hospital. We agreed that someone should call and get status… I ran inside to get the kitchen cordless phone and brought it outside and handed it to them and they looked at me like I grew a second head.

    “What the hell am I going to do with this?”, they asked.

    They had left their cells at home, you see… and didn’t know the number of their best friends. And we didn’t know it either.

    When I was a kid, I had the phone numbers of dozens of folks memorized. Not only the numbers of friends, but acquaintances, siblings’ second phones, and so on.

    Now? We can’t even call our best friends because, well, we left it at home because we wanted to go out to dinner without interruption.

    While this might be a good jumping ground for an essay about how people don’t train their brains anymore, it seems about as timely as an essay explaining how ignorant people are because they don’t even know how to whip a horse.

    Though I will say that it’s a pity that fewer and fewer people seem to be able to play a guitar worth a damn. It’s all synthesizers and pitch control.

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  3. If it was discovered out that excessive internet-usage caused one’s legs to atrophy and fall off, there would be essays within 24 hours with the lines, “I’m skeptical about the claims made by some paranoid traditionalists that having legs is necessarily a good thing in life. Yes life will be different in the legless future, but is that to say we won’t be better, smarter, and more self-actualized? The pro-leg hysteria sounds to me like alarmism. And weren’t the old-timers once worried about the kids listening to Elvis?”

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