Monday, October 4, 2010

The Shallows

Silent Spring for the literary mind.” –Michael Agger, in Slate

Subtitled What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, this is an emphatic book – not quite strident, but assertively thought-provoking. It insists that computers and the Internet undermine the human mind’s ability – hard won ever since the advent of the printing press and wide-spread literacy – to pay deep and reflective attention. Nicholas Carr's thesis may be overstated, especially in attributing deep, sustained, and reflective attention primarily to reading. After all, native peoples with oral traditions, craftsmen, and ascetics have always practiced intense attention.

But I think Carr is right when he says that computers and especially Web surfing have a destructive effect on attention. He laments the “permanent state of distractedness that defines the online life.” He’s right about that! He accuses the Net of being a nexus of ‘interruption technologies’.” I can’t quibble with that assessment. I’ve watched myself flit around the Net and respond to e-mails that interrupt excursions on the Net that have interrupted something I should be concentrating on…. Carr’s provocative book has me re-examining my Net habits. Fortunately, I’ve never fallen into the habit of Net-surfing while writing, and I’m not going to let that camel get its nose in the tent of my vocation.

Carr isn’t sanguine about e-books either. I hope he’s wrong, but this what he asserts:

“When Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, introduced the Kindle, he sounded a self-congratulatory note: ‘It’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as a book and improve on it. And maybe even change the way people read.’ There’s no ‘maybe’ about it. The way people read – and write – has already been changed by the Net, and the changes will continue as, slowly but surely, the words of books are extracted from the printed page and embedded in the computer’s ‘ecology of interruption technologies’.”

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