Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Internet Thinking

Sharon Wildwind

I found an interesting article by Nicholas Carr, published in the on-line edition of The Atlantic. The article is called, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains” http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google.

Carr contends that he’s noticed a change in his own thought patterns. Time was he could easily get lost in a long book or complex article, but now he has trouble keeping his attention focused for a few pages. He attributes this to a decade of surfing the net: retrieving quick facts needed for a story, following hyperlinks, checking blogs, and constantly exposing himself to multi-media functions like podcasts and videos.

Carr’s quote that struck me particularly was, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr goes on for several pages, citing anecdotes from other friends in the same predicament, scientific studies being conducted in Britain and at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., and a fascinating story about the German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) acquisition of his first typewriter, and how it changed his writing style.

The article made me think.

Once, in graduate school, I read every word of Julian Jaynes’, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. If I remember correctly, I didn’t even understand the title until about page 80. When I finished the book, I felt as though I’d completed a performance worthy of Olympic gold. I was very proud of myself for tackling and conquering a new, complex concept.

If Nicholas Carr, his anecdotal friends, and neurological programming research are correct, I’m risking that ability to understand complexity by what I’m doing at this very minute. As an aside, I’ve kept track of the electronic side trips I’ve done so far to write this blog. I’ve left the actual writing 5 times to
--check where George Masion University is located
--verify the dates for Frederick Nietzsche’s life
--check the author and date published of “…Bicameral Mind”
--pull a writing quote from my electronic stash, and
--verify the identify of Rutherford D. Rodgers

So what’s the difference between I’ve just done and physically getting up from my computer to verify facts from leather-bound references books in my extensive library? One is speed: click-click-click-click. Safari-Google search-fact-back to blog. The other is sensory input. My Safari screen, the Google search screen, and the five different sites I visited all had a different look, in different colors, with different arrangements of the information on the screen, and were crammed not only with the fact I needed, but with advertisements, side-bars, other links, and much, much distraction. Yet, in each case, I was able to process the visual presentation in order to locate the fact I needed in less than 10 seconds.

At least we, as authors, have an advantage. We are forced routinely to confront the blank page, and to create there something devoid of blinking banner headlines, dancing hamsters, multi-hued type in six different fonts, and a side-bar asking us to take this quick quiz to see if we’re paying too much for auto insurance.

I don’t want to lose my ability to understand—in fact, to create—a complexity of ideas. If I do, my fiction is going to suffer. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure how to go about it because I’m not giving up the Internet. So, this morning, I’m opening up a new “note to self.” What kinds of things can I do to preserve the complexity of my thought processes?

Write in long-hand from time to time?
Listen to complex instrumental music? That doesn’t mean only classical music. Something like Phillip Glass or the Toronto-based percussion ensemble, Nexus, can be quite complex.
Read a tough book?
Cut out background noise, like a radio or TV playing while I’m working?

I know it’s a short-list and I’m looking for more ideas. Any thoughts on how to retain the ability to think in complex terms? Suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Writing quote for the week:

We’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge.
~Rutherford D. Rodgers, Yale librarian, commenting on the enormous number of books, periodicals, and other documents published each year.

This quote was made twenty-three years ago, in February 1985. Mr. Rodgers and the rest of us had hardly scratched the surface of the multi-media, information glut now available on the web.


Sandra Parshall said...

I wish I could help, Sharon, but your question is too complex for me.

I have a lot of trouble these days concentrating on reading. I would probably never make it through a book if I couldn't listen to it on tape or CD. It's pathetic, but there you are. Fortunately, I am able to concentrate for a while when I'm writing.

paul lamb said...

By far the best stimulant I have found for increasing the range and complexity of my thought is to be in a book discussion group. I don't mean some fluffy thing at Borders, but a real, serious one that tackles serious literature. Right now I'm in a group that is about to end a three-year discussion of Moby Dick. I feel like the slow kid they let into the smart kids classroom, but it is stimulating my thought. I also belong to a discussion group at the local Catholic Workers house that tackles novels that deal in serious moral issues. I sometimes go to a monthly discussion at the local library if the books seem worthy. I see many of the same people at each of these groups, and we've become a little community, all eager to hear what each other has to say.

Also, I thought I was the only one who read that book by Julian Jaynes.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I think this is one of the most important problems of our time. I really do. Try to have a conversation with a group of people at dinner. Not one topic gets thoroughly explored. Read the paper? We just skim.

The New York Times Science section. One of my favorites. I'm so happy when I read an entire article. Didn't we used to always read all of everything? I mean, that was the point, right?

Think about it--on my TV remote, we can choose from 900 stations. It's clear that most of that is mind-clogging nothing. (And I work in TV, so that's making a statment.)

I'm to the point where I am incredibly proud of myself for finishing a whole crossword puzzle. Watching a whole movie on DVD without folding the laundry, or cooking, or paying bills. Just sitting there, watching a movie, without getting up. Almost impossible.

Which is why, as Sandra says, writing is such an unusual pursuit. When I'm working on the book, the time just evaporates.

I suppose it's about goals.

jwhit said...

I think it has to do with mimicing the complexity of life today, and not less. I used to describe the range of duties I had running a decent size department in a Phoenix college as juggling plates, like the act we would see on the Ed Sullivan Show [now I *am* showing my age!]. Every once in a while, I didn't get to the end of the line and some plates crashed.

This multi-tasking becomes the norm: doing needlecraft or housework while watching tv, flipping between and book and the program, listening to an audio book while exercising, pick your poison. My psychology tells me that the way to get into trouble is to try and deal with two similar meaning channels at the same time: writing words and listening to TV as an example. This causes cognitive conflict.

BUT - I wouldn't do without the online world. It increases my productivity 100 fold. I cannot imagine going back to yellow pads, note cards, stacks of books on library tables. I do work differently: better.

Thanks for the spark.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Okay, so we've got an epidemic here. Remember the "Take Back the Night" campaigns? I think I'll put organizing a "Take Back the Mind" campaign on my to-do list. I'll let you know when I get around to it.

It makes me feel better to know I'm in such August company.

Paul, it's nice to know at least one other human being slogged through the book.

Ilana said...

I saw this in my students. If they couldn't Google an answer, then it wasn't there. What? Read the textbook? No. That is far too much work. They want to memorize and regurgitate (and this was Anatomy and Physiology where there are complex interactions within systems and between them). Getting them to answer a complicated question and to draw lines between things by thinking them through (not just by looking it up somewhere) was nearly an impossible task.

I love the Internet and wouldn't want to give it up, but I do think people are loosing that ability to think deeply.