I was invited to an elaborate house warming party on Labor Day. I had planned to use the day to catch up on half completed summer projects and have a welcome respite from 12+ hour days sitting amongst the ubiquitous electronic media that dominates most our lives. Then I decided it would be productive and nurturing in an out-of-box sort of way to be face to face with people disassociated from work, and relented.
The first person I saw upon arriving pointed to a 500-foot-high broadcast tower a short distance away, replete with aviation warning lights. He asked, "What do you think those things do to our brains?" I replied that "whatever they do, it's been going on all of our lives. I'm more concerned about the impact of constant interruption and distraction that our computers, smartphones, and tablets have upon our ability to think and be creative in our daily work."
"Bingo," said a very distinguished octogenarian seated nearby, who, as he revealed, was the first psychiatrist to work for NASA on the Mercury space program.
The conversation became popular very quickly. Our former U.S. Air Force Colonel / NASA consultant and retired Ivy professor of psychiatry started asking questions: "I'll bet you're all good at multitasking... what effect do you think that has upon your creativity? Would you like to have time for slower, more contemplative thought? When was the last time you read an entire nonfiction print book at least 20 pages at a time?" Everyone was abuzz, and the group discussion reminded me of the average workday in which we perpetually field Skype messages, emails, video conferences, old fashioned phone calls, and, if we're lucky, find time to truly think through what we're doing. Case in point: As I've been writing this post, I've had five Skype conversations and four phone calls, and responded to six emails. I have back-to-back conference calls starting in half an hour.
I'm not complaining, mind you. This is the de rigueur pace we all try to maintain. But let's look at it more closely. My newfound psychiatrist acquaintance was true to his academic roots, and in full disclosure, mentioned that Nicholas Carr published a brilliant book on the subject in 2010 titled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. So of course I Googled it after the party. NPR interviewed Mr. Carr about his work, and he said, "Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle, and that is what you're doing every time you use the Internet.”
Carr believes that the Internet is a medium based on interruption — and it's changing the way people read and process information. We've come to associate the acquisition of wisdom with deep reading and solitary concentration, and he says there's not much of that to be found online.
NPR cites a number of excerpts from the book. It also appears that the work contains a great deal of fascinating history, citing doomsayers from every stage of technological development including the printing press, the past value debate of books vs newsprint, and failed predictions that the phonograph would usurp literacy. But in contemporary fashion, the following snippet seems especially relevant: "The distractions in our lives have been proliferating for a long time, but never has there been a medium that, like the Net, has been programmed to so widely scatter our attention and to do it so insistently."
I haven't made time to download Mr. Carr's book to my Nook, but I will. And I plan to read it in entirety before month's end. Perhaps you'll choose to do the same -- and maybe we'll become more cognizant of the media message, or lack there of, and reserve more time for thought.