When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.
We have immediate access to more information than any other time in history. The Internet allows for greater connectivity, instant links to related information, and searching capabilities that greatly facilitate research.
But at what cost do all of these benefits come?
Journalist Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, explains that the Internet is similar to previous information technologies like maps, mechanical clocks or printed books. Each of these mediums, when first introduced, changed the way our brains handled information. As each technology rose to prominence, “some cognitive skills” were developed “at the expense of others.” Carr says that “every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities.” He goes on to explain that “the more we use” a particular tool “the more we mold ourselves to its form and function.” With that framework in mind, what then is the increasingly ubiquitous Internet doing to us?
"The Net's interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment."
The issue is not information overload. There has always been more information available than a single person could consume. Carr believes the issue is that our always connected state is “chipping away at [our] capacity for concentration and contemplation.” He explains: “once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Carr does not advocate a digital monk lifestyle with Internet abstinence. Rather he encourages us to determine what the true costs of the benefits that are offered by relying on the Internet.
We must learn to balance the rapid discovery and retrieval of information made possible by the Internet with the depth and analysis required by longer forms of reading traditionally found in books. Yes, you will still spend time on the Internet, it is here to stay. There are several benefits to using it as a tool to simplify information gathering and connecting with others. However, try to supplement your screen time with an additional physical book or two. Diving deeper into a book results in more of a “replenishing of the mind” than a tweet or a blog post can offer.
Carr explains: “The words in books [not only] strengthen people’s ability to think abstractly; they [enrich] people’s experiences of the physical world.”
Choose to take a break
"We usually make better decisions... if we shift our attention away from a difficult mental challenge for a time."
While the author does not advocate for a permanent off the grid approach, unplugging now and then is beneficial when you’re stuck in a rut. A Dutch study found that taking periodic breaks permits the “unconscious mind time to grapple with a problem, bringing to bear information and cognitive processes unavailable to conscious deliberation.”
We need to learn self-control and step away, allowing ourselves a break. We need to make the decision because “We are forever inundated by information of immediate interest to us – and in quantities well beyond what our brains can handle.”
Create your commonplace
"We should imitate bees and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and then turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state."
While memorizing and deep cognitive processing are not en vogue they remain beneficial, even to our Internet adapted brains.
The Dutch Philosopher, Erasmus, advocated that everyone keep a notebook organized by subject that he called a “Commonplace.” In this record he encouraged students and teachers to note based upon their reading and observations “occurrences of striking words, archaic or novel diction, brilliant flashes of style”. With these annotations he encouraged the owners to review them, to memorize, and work to digest their notes. The value in creating such a work is in the connections made between seemingly disparate entries. While Google may be able to scan millions of web sites in seconds, it cannot make the connections between that passage of How to Kill a Mockingbird you read in high school and your decision to attend law school.
Reading The Shallows has confronted me with a number of questions about my own Internet use and its long-term costs. In an effort to consciously “unplug”, I tried scaling back my social media consumption by only checking in on Mondays. I have also tried to not always be listening to something, even if it is a podcast or an audiobook. While traveling to and from work or classes for the last few years I’ve listened to audiobooks or podcasts and always thought I was being so efficient because I thought I was always learning something new. Now, I still read/listen a lot, however, I try to give myself more time to intellectually digest and process what I am learning before immediately moving on to the next item in my queue.
While neither experiment was initially pleasant, the results proved interesting. Trying to dive deeper has resulted in an increase in cognitive capacity for grappling with new ideas. My commonplace is still a bit scattered and certainly not organized enough to please Erasmus, but I have already seen value in making connections between the books I read and my daily routine.
In the comments let us know what you can do to dive deeper?