Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is the internet scrambling our brains (and should we care?)

Nicholas Carr is a writer who has made it his mission to alert us to the re-wiring of our brains. In last Saturday's Times (no link because Times Online is closeted behind its paywall), he published a summary of his points and a plug for his book.

Carr's argument is that the internet has "changed the way we think". In his own words:
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 lengthy article... That's rarely the case any more. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.
This, he says, is the result of our engagement with the internet, the way we access information online in an instant and flit from site to site, browsing and messaging simultaneously. No longer do we think in good old book terms, starting at the beginning and working through to the end, but we spider about all over the place, never pausing to go deeper into anything.

I recognise this in my own life, but ignoring my first response, which was "it's not the internet, it's just middle age, take it from me", I wondered whether he might have a point. Have I lost my ability to engage with long texts because I spend half my time grappling with my inbox whilst simultaneously sourcing sermon material via Google, writing this blog and getting distracted by Twitter?
Perhaps there is something in it. I would read the book, but honestly, it looks enormous. How does he expect me to get all the way through that? But, based on what the article says, I can think of a few objections and complications:

  • It's difficult to argue with the basic observation, about the difference between books and the internet. But does that really mean that our mental hard-wiring is being changed?
    Carr's argument seems to be heavily based on his own experience. For myself, I recognise that I am a shallow and easily distracted reader, but I have a suspicion that I've always been like that. My hard-wiring was scrambled long before the internet came along, and all it did was save me the bother of thinking of ways of getting distracted.
  • To what extent has the human brain really been shaped by books? This seems like the anxiety of an academic and professional wordsmith, who is clearly highly literate, but may be making the assumption that everybody else is like him. My guess is that, even at a time in history when levels of literacy are higher than ever before, most people in the world don't actually read that many books. And did they ever? Carr invokes the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Of course, great books were written at these times, and great minds read them. But the majority of people were too busy trying to eat and survive, leaving little time to engage in the "calm, linear, thought" that he is so keen on.
  • How many books have ever been read word-for-word, from start to finish? Gripping novels, perhaps, but I don't think those are the kind of books Carr has in mind. It's the great works of the mind he wants us to engage with. But really? Most bookish academics that I know wouldn't dream of picking up a book and reading it all the way through. They skim it, fillet it for the main points, scribble in it with a pencil and pause to think of all the reasons why the author is wrong and they are right.
The last point is especially true in this age of industrial publishing. "Of the making of many books there is no end" has never been more true. Perhaps, in previous centuries, it was realistic to think that one could read, if not every book, then at least all the important books in a particular field. Now this would be a physical impossibility. The publishing industry has forced shallow reading on us. And with increasing quantity, comes decreasing quality, meaning that there are now lots of books that we might start reading, but decide that we really don't want to go on to the end. I felt less guilty about my habit of reading only the first half of theological books once I realised just how turgid some of them were. Perhaps the new technology will encourage a bit of healthy Darwinian competition among authors, weeding out the dull and unreadable. If that's the case, I'm prepared to risk a bit of brain re-wiring.

So what are the implications of all this in the world of faith? Christianity is, and always has been, a religion of the word, in which the Bible, still apparently history's best-selling book, plays a fundamental role. Should we be worried? Well, not really. One thing Christians rarely do is read the Bible in a linear way. We dip into it, consider snippets, read it in bite-sized chunks. Even when do consider biblical books as wholes, we tend to cross-reference with the rest of the Bible as well as other books. If anything, the internet will help us with this rather than hinder. I feel that anything that encourages people to engage with the Bible is helpful, especially now we've all had our brains rebooted.

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