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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 8, 2010 @ 7:30 am

    Me and my shallow brain

    Hugh Linehan

    My brain is turning to mush. My ability to concentrate on… oh, hang on a second. Gosh, look at that… now where was I? Yes, my brain is… Hey, look! A new email. What happens if I click on this? That was stupid. Right, so my brain is turning to… what’s that beeping noise?

    Distractions, distractions… Not only do they get in the way of writing, they also get in the way of concentrated reading. Our reading habits over the past decade have shifted inexorably from printed page to glowing screen. The benefits have been enormous, but the costs are high, according to Nicholas Carr, whose new book, The Shallows, argues that the internet is rewiring the neural pathways of our brains in unexpected and fundamental ways, taking away the capacity for in-depth “deep reading” which has been the foundation for the development of Western civilisation since Gutenberg invented the printing press more than 500 years ago.

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    Talking to Karlin Lillington in this newspaper last week, Carr described The Shallows not as an attack on the internet, but rather “as an elegy for the literary mind.” According to the book: “If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the internet.”

    On this, and on other subjects, The Shallows posits some intriguing and well-argued theories about where we might be going. But some of the conclusions are tenuous at best. It’s far too early to pronounce on the effects of the digital revolution. Personally, I’m not convinced that I’ve become even shallower than I already was. I certainly spend a lot more time on computers than I did 10 years ago. Has that time pushed print reading aside? In the case of newspapers and periodicals, definitely. But I’m reading a far broader range of newspapers online than I could ever have done in print. Yes, I skim, but haven’t people always skimmed newspapers?

    And I do still read books, so the 250 pages of The Shallows didn’t seem such a terrible hurdle. Mind you, like Carr, I’m a middle-aged “digital immigrant” who grew up in the pre-computer age, when reading always involved pieces of ink-stained paper. We’re only starting to see the impact of digital natives, adults who have grown up with the internet. Not surprisingly, some see them in apocalyptic terms.

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    Digital immigrant meets digital native in digital movie

    “Concentration on a sustained conversational theme becomes impossible because of helpless availability to incoming calls,” wrote the usually very astute Declan Kiberd in a recent jeremiad against the pernicious effects of new technology, which took in everything from personal stereos to Facebook to wearing sunglasses when they’re not strictly necessary.

    It’s hard not to see some of this stuff as just Grumpy Old Man syndrome. The young don’t pay attention; they know nothing about the past; they revel in their own ignorance; they will never measure up to the high standards we have set them. They are, in short, a terrible disappointment to us all, and the future of the human race looks bleak in their hands. No change there, then.

    Perhaps for polemical reasons, Carr barely allows for the possibility that digital technology might change the reader-writer relationship for the better For example, writers can be held to account in a way that was never possible before. Blogger Scott Karp is held up in The Shallows as an example of the new breed: despite being a graduate in Spanish and English literature, he now never opens a book, apparently. But John Harris of the Guardian emailed Karp in California last week and found that, while he may have given up printed non-fiction, he still reads novels – a not unimportant correction, sourced in a matter of minutes, which 20 years ago would almost certainly never have happened.

    Meanwhile, there’s an interesting online trend towards disseminating longform writing – essays, fiction – on the web. The Instapaper app on my smartphone allows me to save and read lengthy articles and essays offline. Services such as longform.org and Read It Later do something similar. The appetite for considered, in-depth writing is not going to disappear. In fact, as digital tools become more sophisticated, there’s even a chance it might increase. The barbarians may have to wait a little longer at the gate, after all.

    *If you’re reading this article on the blog, try the non-shallow version (no hyperlinks to quoted sources, no video interview with Carr, no Doug the talking dog) in today’s newspaper. Or, indeed, the online version of the article (yes, I know we should have hyperlinks and metadata in online articles – we are working on it).

    • desgreene says:

      The reading paradigm has certainly shifted for the internet generation.

      Readers are now looking for a quick fix to suit the window of opportunity provided by their bus ride or commuter train journey.

      The restriction of a single book to hand does not satisfy the more demanding digital reader. Fancy an essay, some Byron, a piece of Ulysses, French philosophy….. The choice offered by the modern ereader/iPad is endless and better still most of the content is free to download!

    • kynos says:

      I haven’t even got the concentration left to read the E-paper version which I continue to pay EUR9.00 a month for without complaint because I think I’m supporting a good cause (i.e. the IT) by doing so and I don’t feel so guilty for free-reading your website. But you’re right. My ability to read anything but the most sensational page-turners has gone for a burton these past 7 or 8 years now. I’ve an ever growing matterhorn of books, many which I’ve bought from having read about them or being inspired to look for them on or by this site. And I haven’t properly read any nearly, from cover to cover, but rather dip in and skim and put down and pick up like some sort of depraved old Roman grazing at a blow-out feast and the vomitarium convenient to the couch. So I’ve moved residence recently. To an old cottage (tho’ fairly modern inside) in the middle of a gap in Vodafone and O2 and 3′s coverage, without a telly (there’s another reason I don’t have a telly, asides from a hatred and fear of the propaganda stream, it’s that I just got sick of shouting at it all the time in disgust and disbelief and yeah fear) and with nothing by way of entertainment but a radio and a pile of books. O yeah and a fridge full of beer. So’s I can at best pick up the occasional one bar signal on my mobile and wireless modem, enough to load a page or two of IT, but not enough to regularly surf on. So I’ll see how that goes. A digital Walden that’s what I need. Good article Hugh. I’ll read it properly when I can get the focus together.)

    • Martin says:

      This article really resonated with me. Like kynos, i have a thirst for knowledge and I have a stack of books i’ve yet to read because I tend to focus on daily media, i think because it is quicker to get through and gives me a sense of security that i am “in the know”. That sounds mad putting it in print, but life does feel like a rush most of the time. With all the information available to us 24 hours a day, and the myriad ways to access it, it seems like a constant struggle to stay focused on the issues that are important to us individually, without getting distracted by the overwhelming volume of information hurtling towards us from every angle. I recently started a new online business that hopefully makes life a litle bit easier for those involved, feel free to check out http://www.smarty.ie

    • minX.ie says:

      Very interesting piece, Mr Turk and which put one into “deep reflection” mode (well, semi-deep!)
      I thought Mr Carr (in video clip, above) was a bit lost for words and was stumbling towards the end of the interview with Ms Lillington, who was getting to the crux of the thing and asking quite probing questions – based on the salient points made by the other Professor who was invited to join the conversation.
      Whether reading “material” books is on the decline (which is no bad thing for trees) writing is certainly becoming a lost art and probably most of us can just about scrawl our signatures now (which is no bad thing for the environment – all those throw-away biros). The most distracting/annoying thing, which Carr didn’t mention, is the noise from the hard drive – I changed the fan a few times to get it as silent as possible but to no effect and then there’s the heat from a laptop……….but then books needed all that dusting and there’s book lice and…I think I’m making a point. At any rate, those of us who wish to find silent time for reflection will find it, and have always found it – which often meant putting down the book.

      (ps What is a “bow-diss ripper?”, I thought, when Mr Carr mentioned this – then I realized he was saying “bodice-ripper” in his American accent – a type of Mills & Boon romantic thriller).

    • Kieran O'Connor says:

      A different conclusion might be drawn from after viewing this TED talk on the work of Sugatra Mitra:


      While the future of one particular wood-pulp-based substrate is by no means assured, the words imprinted on it are in no danger. How can the free availability of the sum total of human knowledge can be anything but a good thing?

    • Quint says:

      Interesting piece, Hugh. ”The Shallows” posits some very challenging ideas and his theory on the ”plasticity” of the brain and the distractive nature of the digital age has….oh look!!!! It’s a cat playing a keyboard on YouTube!!!….hhahahahah…sorry, erm..where was I?

    • minX.ie says:

      I cannot understand why more Irish Times readers don’t comment on the blogs — it’s always the same little group more or less. Actually, I don’t think many people here know how to comment online. Pity, because reading the comments is great craic sometimes. If it were in the Guardian, there be hundreds of comments for this piece, I’d bet

    • enda bates says:

      Its interesting that Carr talks about Gutenberg, as many people also said that the printing press would also take away our capacity for deep learning due to the distracion of all that printed text. Some things dont change.
      It is far, far too early to tell how the digital age will effect our thought processes, as with most things, there willl be benefits and drawbacks.
      “Concentration on a sustained conversational theme becomes impossible because of helpless availability to incoming calls,”
      Really? Its not that hard to turn off your wifi and phone and we are far from helpless in that regard. It will take some time for us to learn how to do this, just like it will take us time to learn that we that the internet is public, and what we post online could end up on the front page of a newspaper tomorrow. Some learn faster than others.

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