Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why I Spent Time Surfing the Internet and Checking Facebook Instead of Writing This...

I've been thinking about writing about Nicholas Carr's intriguing new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains for some time, especially after reading David Brooks' excellent column referencing the book, which nicely summed up my opinion, too, of the book and what it says about the future of human intelligence.  But, as described in the book about virtually every other connected citizen of the universe, I've been too easily distracted in recent days from the usual Internet distractions--e-mail, blogs, Facebook.

In defense of myself, I will say that I've had very few largish chunks of time recently for sustained writing or doing things that might take more of my intellectual energy.  And I will say even when I have had a little time, it's far easier to check in quickly with friends or plan ahead on my calendar.  But I will say that I have made time for plenty of offline reading, as I infinitely prefer real physical books to anything online.

As I mentioned when  I interviewed author Mary Eberstadt, I first read some of The Loser Letters at National Review online, where some were first published, but I found it much more satisfying to read as the physical book, both because of the story line, but also because I wouldn't be distracted as I am when online to click around.

I personally have resisted getting an e-reader like a Kindle or Nook, and after reading The Shallows, I think I will stick with my resolution for now.   I do have the free Kindle App on my iPhone, but I find it only useful for reading aloud (either to someone else or for someone, usually one of my children, to read to the rest of the family).

In The Shallows,  Carr argues persuasively that, "with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-alterning technology that has ever come into to general use.  At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book.”

Carr writes, "In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us."

I somewhat disagree with the notion of books being “solitary” because usually the first thing I do when I am in the midst of, or recently finished a great book, whether fiction or non-fiction, is tell someone about it.  I’ll strike up a conversation with an acquaintance at church or in the grocery store, I’ll bring it to book groups (and even start book groups specifically to talk about a book).  I consider my role here at the Catholic Post Book Group an incredibly fortunate way for me to combine my love of reading (real, print books) and my love of technology and connecting with friends and others via the Internet.   But I was very troubled by the science Carr cites to show that the Internet is making our brains more distractable, and not in a good way.

In May, blogger Melissa Wiley started an interesting discussion about Carr's book (which prompted me to become the first at our library to reserve the book!), and asked the question, "Have you noticed a difference in your powers of concentration or memory?"

David Brooks' column, though, hits another important point, which is how the Internet's vast information does not help one have literacy about judging the worth of the information: 

"The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message," writes Brooks.  "But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom."

Brooks concludes,  "It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning."

Thoughts?  Do you prefer a real book or reading online?  I wonder if there is a generational difference here?   Share your thoughts (and your approximate generation, if you like!

1 comment:

  1. This is a great topic for discussion.

    I too love to read a book. It feels like a luxury to me these days, however.

    Tesa Baillie