I think we’re all increasingly aware of what type of world we’re living in now, right? Information is literally at our fingertips, more accessible than it’s ever been and we’re becoming increasingly reliant upon it. But what does that actually mean? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we’re able to access obscure facts and reference articles whenever we need to? The debate rages on, probably as we speak (err, read) and as with any debate, there are two extremes. Aren’t there always?
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr addresses part of this by examining the culture of the Internet, how it’s already impacted our lives and how it continues to do so. That term “instant gratification” gets tossed around a lot these days and I can’t pretend I’m not one of those people who gets really frustrated if their smart phone hasn’t pulled up the website they want after a few seconds… probably because I’m trying to prove my very valid point to someone who’s being a tool and I NEED TO PROVE THEY’RE WRONG — ahem. But still! My PHONE is pulling up a website, my PHONE is always in my pocket and therefore the Internet is always at my fingertips. (AT&T willing anyway… which isn’t so often, as it turns out.)
The point is! Does greater access to information actually increase our knowledge? That’s debatable. Simply having facts and being able to regurgitate data is not the same thing as wisdom, is it? Multitasking doesn’t mean we’re more complex, it means we’re more scattered, doesn’t it? …does it?
Carr tackles these notions expertly with a little bit of humorous anecdote and a plethora of scientific fact to back up his feeling on the subject of our ever increasing dependency on the Internet. The first chapter of this book was just… depressing, to me, as a voracious reader. I’ve always been the kind of person who enjoys curling up on the sofa with a good book, getting lost in some fantastical world or immersed in a foreign culture on my own time.
After digesting tales from people like English majors and impressively decorated scholars who are bemoaning that they’ve lost the ability to sit down and enjoy a lengthy piece of literature, because their attention was too scattered and their ability to concentrate on a single work lost, I was ready to toss this book out the window and pretend it never existed. “LALALALA THIS ISN’T HAPPENING! SMART PEOPLE DON’T FEEL THIS WAY! LALALA!” Ugh, it’s utterly depressing.
But I pressed on, even though I didn’t want to, and finished the book. Luckily, I’m glad I did!
Carr provides a great bank of detailed information here, citing studies and articles on topics like memory, brain plasticity and cognitive science. He does a great job of organizing all of his information and opinion rationally and effectively. I found myself pausing to consider what he was describing, once or twice, and hoping fervently that he’s wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wronnggggggg about the way the world is turning out, but knowing better. One can only hope.
The book is distinctly pessimistic though. I didn’t come away with a warm, fuzzy feeling about the direction of our society and cultural knowledge, but I also realize that Carr is not totally flawed in the way he’s waxin’ philosophic about it either. And that kind of sucks.
Basically, The Shallows is a good read. It’s meant to coerce you into a bit of deep thought and if you can tear yourself away from a screen for a few hours, you’ll probably be glad that you did. Maybe. As depressing as I found it, I’m still glad I gave it a shot and if you decide to, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
So happy reading, literary nerdlings! As always, feel free to leave your questions, comments or words of wisdom right here orrrr on Twitter!
Image: Nicholas Carr