I am shallow

I’m reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. I don’t normally read ‘Why This Thing is Ruining the World FOR EVER’ books because I think they start from the flawed position of assuming that everything was perfect before This Thing. It feels like the intersection of Nostalgia St and Fear of Change Rd.

But I heard Carr on the radio talking about his book and had an aha! moment.

From The Shallows:

“Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle,” (Carr 2010, pp. 5-6).

I know what he means. I spent a good chunk of my childhood with my head in book after book after book (when I wasn’t jumping off the roof onto the trampoline, or sneaking out at night to wander around town because it was interesting). Now it takes me months to get through anything. I can’t remember the last time I got through a chapter without getting up to make a cup of tea, or put on a load of washing, or check my email, or see if twitter is being interesting. I took four journal articles to the cafe this morning and had to force myself to finish one before I could come home and get on the internet. This is not good for someone who is doing a doctorate.

And I write this with 11 tabs open. That’s 11 articles/opinion pieces/blogs I want to read, yet instead of reading them as I find them, I leave them there to read “later”. And then twitter shows me something new and interesting to read, so I open that in a new tab. By the end of the day, I won’t have read any of them, so I’ll put the links in an email to myself, (subject line: To read) and the email will sit with all the others with the subject line: To read.

So, my first challenge is to finish The Shallows without being distracted. Then, Brain, there’s gonna be some changes around here.

43 responses to “I am shallow

  1. Aw crap, I’m shallow too. Not only do I have 7 tabs open, but I am also educating three children as I type. (They’re actually playing an educational game ATM which gives me net time.) And twitter just won’t quit being shiny.

  2. You leave tabs open too?! I thought that was my neurotic commitment phobic “interesting enough to leave open but not that interesting that I don’t secretly fear I’m missing out on something else that’s interesting on the internet”.

    The internet has given me ADD, I swear it. That’s why I’m so phenomenally bad at housework.

  3. oh no.. this is me exactly!

    i spent 4 hours at uni yesterday afternoon trying to cram for an exam.. a skill that was picked up by spending too much time in the uni bar in undergrad and one that has been refined through stupid deadlines at work..

    but sitting there yesterday.. with the impending exam to commence at 5pm, i found time to check my iphone 1498414 times, get a drink, get some food, begin reading a chapter further on in the book that wasnt being tested that day and plenty of general other malarky.

    ARGH! my brain is being altered!

    and i confess.. 7 tabs open, three half written emails and a spreadsheet awaiting input..

    oh dear.

  4. Oh, God, me too. And also with 7 tabs open. (email, twitter, a newspaper, a forum, my blog, wikipedia and your blog.)

    However. I have been making a concerted effort to re-train my brain recently. I started with articles on the internet. If I didn’t get through them, I printed them off (sorry environment) and forced myself to read them in one sitting. Then I forced myself to sit with a book. I can now get through a good couple of chapters without feeling as if the internet is running away from me.

    • I’ve tried the printing thing, but all I end up with is a pile of unread articles.

      So, how have you been making yourself stick to the re-training?

      • Sheer force of will. Kind of. I’ve been re-reading books I love, making people give me books they think I will love. And just kind of sitting down and sticking to it.

        Sorry, I have no actual helpful advice.

        Ooo, actually, yes. The books I am reading tab on my blog made me slightly ashamed of how little I was reading. That helped.

  5. see – now I never fell in love with t’internet so I am really perfunctory with it. I check a few things daily – this blog, newspapers ( which I read sporadically throughout the day when I have time or need a break), emails, bank accounts maybe, facebook, my daily pregnancy update thing and that’s it. If I need something I look it up and then turn it off again. When I was studying I used it for research only. If I have to turn my laptop on at home I get annoyed (probably cos I resent the 8 hours I spent on front of a PC at work and don’t wish to replicate this at home)…this may be why my itunes was 8 versions out of date til last week.

    I must admit I probably surf more and mess about on facebook more now that I have an iphone but I frequently find on the train once I’ve looked up the few things I am interested in and maybe texted my sister, I then put it away and read my magazine/book.

    yet I keep dating web and IT geeks!

  6. Maybe I got lucky with the timing of my birth, or something.
    Granted, I don’t tend to read books that often anymore, but that’s by virtue of not finding any that seem that interesting to me – at least not interesting enough to dislodge other forms of entertainment or intellectual pursuit. The most recent book I did read, I lost sleep devouring it.

    Was I young enough when I started using the internet that my brain was able to develop the prose-reading and internet-browsing in parallel, rather than cannibalising one for the other?

    • Perhaps. Hard to answer since I don’t know you at all. But for me – and the others commenting here, some I do know in real life – it seems to be a thirty-something and older problem, but only because we remember life before the internet.

      • I vaguely remember life before the internet, but it certainly arrived during my formative years.

        • You know, I look at my students in the computer lab, and most of them can’t focus on one thing to save their lives. But those who have to turn their backs to their computers to see what I’m showing them at the front of the class are the ones who get what they’re supposed to do. Those who didn’t have to turn away from their computers to see the front of the class – and so spent the whole time on Facebook, and probably think I don’t know – are the ones now asking me to show them, again, how to do really basic stuff that we’ve been over before.

          • That’s nothing to do with the internet. 10 years ago, those same people would just be reading magazines or talking at the back of class. Granted, the internet’s probably made it easier to pretend to work when you’re not, but I doubt it’s actually increased the motivation to do so by a significant amount.

            • True. Which is why I think it’s silly that we put this massive distraction right in front of them, that’s way more interesting than what they’re supposed to be doing, and expect them to not be distracted by it.

  7. Yeah, the internet has substantially changed my attention span, too. And it keeps itself going – I was forced to live without internet for 11 days this month and after that I really wasn’t interested in twitter, facebook, blogs and mailing lists anymore. Well, now it has come back. Sigh.

    • Hi Elke, welcome to the News with Nipples. I wonder how much of the internet’s appeal is related to jobs that underuse us. ManFriend’s job requires lots of active brainwork all day so there’s very little time for the internet, yet most people I know have jobs that allow for a lot of faffing around. I’m not suggesting that we should be treated like robots and be forced to work 9-5 without a break, but maybe we just need new jobs. Ones that challenge us and use our skills. Doesn’t sound like too much to ask…

  8. Well, dear newswithnipples,
    thanks for the welcome note.
    I just happen to have had a job that challenged me quite a lot. And in my opinion that’s where I lost that attention span. But it was in IT, so maybe that’s where the onion hangs on the hook (as we say in Germany). Meaning these modern, no postmodern times communication tools are the roots of this new wiring of the brain.
    Still your doing a doctorate – seems quite a challenge to me. Am I wrong?

    • The onion hangs on the hook? I like that a lot.

      Hmm, you’ve just ruined my theory. Oh well.

      Yes, the doctorate is difficult, particularly because I’ve lost the ability to just sit and read for hours on end. But since I’ve become aware of The Shallows, I’ve been making an effort to walk away from the computer.

  9. See, I think I’ve always been shallow. I read a lot when I was younger and I still read now, but it’s always been pretty fluffy – young adult fiction then, autobiographies now. I’ve never had any time for ‘proper’ books. I can be self-motivated but it has to be something I’m interested in or I will find a way to procrastinate all day (I’m looking at you, day job).

    I love the internet because it seems made for my brain. It’s kind of funny that it’s moulding other people’s brains to be more like mine.

    • I see… so it’s all your fault…

      • Well, you know us Gen Ys. We think the whole world revolves around us.

        • Only because we’ve told you it does.

          • I do wonder how much of it is living down to expectations. Even as am obnoxiously conscientious little bastard, it sometimes feels like too much effort to be a decent human being when you’re going to be treated like a selfish, self-absorbed “typical” gen-Yner regardless.

            That said, I stood in the recent SA election, and only half of the “it’s nice to see young people getting involved” comments were painfully condescending. Some people are at least willing to reconsider the stereotype.

            (Also, outpolled the DLP – among others. Booya!)

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