Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What Am I Doing Here?

The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, non-fiction by Nicholas Carr.
W.W. Norton & Company, 2010

Man. Am I confused.

After reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, I’m left in a quandary. Am I, by maintaining a blog, contributing to the erosion of something I treasure?

I love blogging. I love doing this blog. But I also love books. And, quite emphatically, and rapidly, the Internet is pulling readers away from print media - books, magazines, journals, newspapers, guides - and diverting them with an activity that appears to be similar to reading, but is it reading? The answer, according to Carr, is no.

He states the case repeatedly, soberly, and compellingly: the reading we do on the Internet is more akin to skimming than reading. I have long suspected this to be the case, and have often been perplexed by my own inability to concentrate as easily on a computer screen than in a book. Carr explains why this is the case. “On the Web,” Carr remarks, “there is no such thing as leisurely browsing. We want to gather as much information as quickly as our eyes and fingers can move.”

That’s true even when it comes to academic research. As part of a five-year study that ended in early 2008, a group from University College London examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium. Both sites provided users with access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. The scholars found that people using the sites exhibited a distinctive “form of skimming activity” in which they’d hop quickly from one source to another, rarely returning to any source they had already visited. They’d typically read, at most, one or two pages of an article or book before “bouncing out” to another site. “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense,” the authors of the study reported; “indeed there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

Carr also cites neuroscientist Michael Merzenich: “There is absolutely no question that modern search engines and cross-referenced websites have powerfully enabled research and communication efficiencies. There is also no question that our brains are engaged less directly and more shallowly in the synthesis of information when we use research strategies that are all about ‘efficiency,’ ‘secondary (and out-of-context) referencing,’’ and ‘once over, lightly.’”

It gets worse. “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind,” observes Carr, “it’s also empathy and compassion.”

Psychologists have long studied how people experience fear and react to physical threats, but it’s only recently that they’ve begun researching the sources of our nobler instincts. What they’re finding is that, as Antonio Damasio, the direct of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, explains, the higher emotions emerge from neural processes that “are inherently slow.” In once recent experiment, Damasio and his colleagues had subjects listen to stories describing people experiencing physical or psychological pain. The subjects were then put into a magnetic resonance imaging machine and their brains were scanned as they were asked to remember the stories. The experiment revealed that while the human brain reacts very quickly to demonstrations of physical pain - when you see someone injured, the primitive pain centers in your own brain activate almost instantaneously - the more sophisticated mental process of empathizing with psychological suffering unfolds much more slowly. It takes time, the researchers discovered, for the brain “to transcend immediate involvement of the body” and begin to understand and to feel “the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation.”

This is disturbing.

“It would be rash,” says Carr in response to this, “to jump to the conclusion that the Internet is undermining our moral sense. It would not be rash to suggest that as the Net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.”

This explains a great deal: the continuing popularity of idiots like Sarah Palin, who makes as much as $75,000 for a speaking engagement and was given a 7 million advance for her memoirs, or why the majority of books published by the mainstream publishing companies are so maddeningly insipid, crass, and mediocre, and the more interesting ideas and titles are marginalized into oblivion.

Ten years ago these things did not bother me so much. They worried me, but did not, as they do now, lead me into despair. Ten years ago when I visited Suzzallo library at the University of Washington, at least half of the students were sitting at carrels and desks reading books and periodicals. Now, they are all gazing into the luminous shallows of their laptop. It is rare to see a student reading a book. The books sit on the shelves, unused, collecting dust, relics of a bygone age.

As for the periodicals, they’re gone. There used to be a section of the library devoted to browsing through recent editions of Film Quarterly, Figaro, Mind & Language, Artforum, American Book Review, and Rolling Stone. There were lush chairs and couches available for more comfortable perusing. It was a wonderful place for serendipitous discovery, or just a delightful way to pass the time. And now it’s gone. As for the magazines, I’m guessing they’ve been bound, shelved, and relegated to library limbo.

It is the same with coffeehouses. I dread going to them. Everyone, as at Suzzallo, is gazing into laptop screens. They make me feel as if I’ve been hurtled through time and space to a parallel universe where people prefer ignorance and superficial content over earnest, intellectual inquiry, exciting ideas and beautiful writing.

Elsewhere, at airports, banks, the post office, or standing in line to see a summer blockbuster, one is far more apt to see people using smartphones and feature phones rather than reading a weekly or paperback.

When Roberta and I saw The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo at a local multiplex, the young woman sitting in front of me began text messaging shortly after the movie began. The light from her phone was distracting, but I thought it might be an emergency and waited for her to finish. It embarrasses me to complain about such things. But she didn’t. After fifteen minutes, I leaned forward and asked her to put it out. She complied, and put her device away. But it left me wondering: why would anyone go to a movie and text message? And the answer to that is that people have become accustomed to what they call “multi-tasking.” Multi-tasking means, essentially, not paying attention to a damned thing. You’re just feeding your brain popcorn; bits of diversionary information with no nutritional value. Or dividing your attention between a movie, a sale at Nordstrom’s, and a short note to a friend.

Employers love multi-tasking. They think it’s a way to get more work out of people. It’s not. It’s merely an excellent way to lower the quality of their work. Multi-tasking does not result in greater efficiency. It results in incompetence, shoddy workmanship, stress, anxiety, and disasters like Deepwater Horizon.

The marginalization of print media and the gargantuan juggernaut that is digitized media is partly what led me to begin a blog. It would seem that that is where the audience has gone. And what I like best about blogging - publishing instantly and foregoing the usual hassles of submission, waiting weeks, often months, to get a negative or (more rarely) positive response - is exhilarating. It is hard not to want to take full advantage of that. Time I used to spend researching possible venues in print media for my essays, poetry, stories and book reviews is now freed up to let me concentrate on my writing.

Another major plus is getting feedback from readers. Feedback allows a blogger to further elaborate or defend their ideas, and the reader to challenge and further engage the writer. The discussions that follow a posting are sometimes more provocative than the original article.

But what is the cost of doing these things? If the quality of attention potential readers are bringing to something written online is dramatically inferior to the attention they would otherwise bring to the soft, alluring pages of a book, it does anyone little good to post their writing online.

I feel like someone living exclusively on a diet of milkshakes, cheeseburgers, and greasy fries. I love milkshakes, cheeseburgers, and greasy fries. I love it so much I feasibly could live on such a diet. But it wouldn’t be good for me. I’d become obese, easily fatigued, and malnourished. My cholesterol would go through the proverbial roof. I’d be risking a heart attack or stroke. Is that what I’m doing by posting on a blog? Is blogging the intellectual equivalent to a cheeseburger?

Obviously, I hope that isn’t the case.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and generalize: I strongly suspect that people in my age group, which is to say people over fifty years of age, have, like me, deeply ingrained reading habits. The computer is useful for making plane reservations, reading restaurant and hotel reviews, ordering books and CDs, buying antiques on eBay, enjoying YouTube videos, and getting news that is vastly more truthful and superior to what can be found on television, newspapers, or radio. Sites such as Truthdig, Truthout, Salon and the Huffington Post are excellent sources of information. But when it comes to reading, I mean real reading, deep, focused, contemplative reading, a book is always preferred. A book is essential. And I worry a great deal about younger people whose reading habits are not nearly as ingrained as mine. They will become, if they are not already, surgeons, lawyers, airline pilots and electricians. I want these people to be fully accustomed to the art of contemplation, deep focus, and earnest concentration.

The evidence has not, so far, proven encouraging. I have visited the apartments of younger people without a single book on the premises. College graduates, no less. I frequently wonder what their papers are like. Do they pay any attention to style? Does style matter at all to them, or is it strictly a matter of content? I wasn’t surprised when a French instructor recently told me that her younger students hated Samuel Beckett. Beckett made no sense to them at all. Well, of course he wouldn’t. Beckett’s language is rich. Highly stylized. Anyone with a sensitivity to language can read Beckett with deeply absorbed pleasure and “get it.” People who view language as little more than a conveyance of information, a somnolent string of words, a kind of television on paper, won’t. They're at home in Harry Potter, bewildered in Molloy.

Carr talks about this too. Silent reading, his research shows, developed slowly. There was a time when reading by oneself, silently, was considered to be a very strange, almost rather disturbing phenomenon. But as books proliferated, silent reading became the norm. And the impact of this was astonishing. “Authors, able to assume that an attentive reader, deeply engaged both intellectually and emotionally, ‘would come at last, and would thank them,’ quickly jumped beyond the limits of social speech and began to explore a wealth of distinctively literary forms, many of which could exist only on the page.” This led, in turn, to a “burst of experimentation that expanded vocabulary, extended the boundaries of syntax, and in general increased the flexibility and expressiveness of language.”

Now, Carr laments, as do I, “the context of reading is again shifting, from the private page to the communal screen.” Authors will have to adapt, though adaptation as Carr describes, sounds more like death. Authors “will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the essayist Caleb Crain describes as ‘groupiness,’ where people read mainly ‘for the sake of a feeling of belonging’ rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter.”

And so I ask myself: what am I doing here? Why am I blogging when I have such an anxiety about the erosion of reading skills? Aren’t I contributing to this erosion?

Thank goodness for cognitive dissonance. I don’t know how I could survive in this world without it. I would not be able to enjoy a cheeseburger but finally and irrevocably commit myself to becoming a full scale vegetarian.

And I would have to quit this blog, if not quit the computer altogether, and search for a manual typewriter, and its requisite ribbons.

Cognitive dissonance aside, I do foster the hope that, despite all the neurological testing and research, the scientists will prove wrong, and that people will evolve along with the new electronic medium and find means to read with the same quality of attention that people bring to books and paper.

There are a few articles, essays, and blogs I have been able to read online without printing them out. It’s harder, but it can be done. I can only hope that the writing I post here, as well as the writing I enjoy on other blogs, find readers with the generosity to fully immerse themselves in the pixels, the words, the sentences, the images and ideas, helping to recreate, in their engagement with the writing, what the author imagined. Savoring not merely the lucidity with which an idea is presented, but savoring as well the wilderness of words that people our skulls with such fugitive seductions, such peculiar milk, such potent wine, such vast and alternating currents.


Harald Striepe said...

A troublesome issue, especially when looking at kid's behavior so different from ours - more distracted, more multi tasking.
But I do enjoy your musings "in depth."
My two cents: we all have to adjust. Adjustment likely goes in both ways - our reference for value changes, we adjust to the mental cacophony of distractions, and selection will drive it to what works best.
Every generation has mourned the decline of the next.
Think of this:
How overwhelming must our world seem to people from 50, 100, 240, a thousand years ago. They must think, how can we aspire to any consideration, to any depth? Even the average person drowns in material gadgets unthinkable to the past. But then, would we want to go back for more than a short visit?

I think, we will be ok, and most importantly, we must embrace the changes and be part of them to be part of their shaping, or the rabble will get us all...

John Olson said...

Thank you for your hopeful input Harald. You are right, of course. The sober reality is that we will have to adjust. Though the adjustment for my part has been quite easy; balancing time on the internet with time on the couch reading a book has proved a smooth and enjoyable strategy.

It could be Carr is overstating his case. I know very few people below the age of 40, but those I do know, love books. One sells books, owns and operates a small independent bookstore on Capitol Hill here in Seattle (Pilot Books) and another, Jennifer Foster, makes books -- gorgeous handmade books (Filter Press). This represents a minority, I know, but it's nice to know that the desert looming ahead of us has a few springs and oases.

Harald Striepe said...

Judging by my kids (under 20), reading is a frequent, daily activity. Not all of the books are of "quality", some of it is trashy SciFi...

And they prefer paper, frowning on my ebook habit.

Steven Fama said...

There is a difference, words on the screen, words on paper.

To me, there is.

And that may be the rub. Is it my habits and experience that allow me to connect ideas and words on separate pages more easily compared to when those same words are on the screen, accessible and comparable only via scrolling or clicking between pages?

John Olson said...

According to Carr, it is chiefly the links and occasional advertisements that distract from full absorption in a text. But he also talks a little about the pixels-vs-print conundrum. He mentions the tangibility of books. But Kindle and iPads and smartphones are portable objects. He also mentions the communal nature of the internet, as opposed to the purely private connection we enjoy with a book. Unfortunately, I tossed my notes and returned the book to the library. I recall that there is a lot more to it than that. Wish I could remember. But according to Socrates my memory has been compromised by reading!

qualepress said...

I've got a hard time swallowing generalizations. I can remember (now almost 40 years ago) heading to libraries to do research for papers, going through card catalogs, finding say 2 dozen books on a subbject and knowing I did not have time to read them all, hunting them down in the stacks, scanning tables of contents and indices and skimming text to find the handful of books of use that I did have time to read. That process would take a day. Now I can do it online in an hour.

And even if the "younger" generation is more adept at web searches, I'd be a rich man if I got a buck every time a student said "I can't find any info on this..." and I google it and find something immediately.

Steven Fama said...

I agree with Gian (qualepress) regarding how books in libraries can be scavenged quickly for information, similar to web pages when searched and quickly clicked away.

However, there is something about staring at (into) a printed text, versus one seen on the screen, that makes the former different, richer, etc. But again, it may just be the learned habits of me, an almost old man.