Saturday, June 05, 2010

I don't buy this ...

... 'The Shallows': This Is Your Brain Online. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle, and that, says author Nicholas Carr, is what you're doing every time you use the Internet.

What a ridiculous analogy, if only because no one would try to do a crossword puzzle while reading a book, since it would involve, not interrupting what you are doing, but doing something else. I do not interrupt my reading to go online -- except if something I read prompts a question that I would answered before proceeding. But then I might put down a book for a couple of minutes in order to look up a word I wasn't sure about. One of the reasons my blogging has been spotty lately -- and also why I'm behind in my email -- is because I have been reading a lot, and doing some writing as well. Carr's is another Gladwell-style book -- i.e., one in which a gimmick is presented as an idea by surrounding it with all kinds of supporting factoids. That sort of thing is a bigger waste of your mental powers than surfing the net.


  1. Dear Mr. Wilson,

    "What a ridiculous analogy, if only because no one would try to do a crossword puzzle while reading a book, since it would involve, not interrupting what you are doing, but doing something else. "

    I would, respectfully disagree. It is precisely what happens to many of us when we're connected. I know that I'm looking at something I need for research and a note pops up that something particularly urgent has arrived in the in-box and then I have three possible im that I can answer or not as i choose, but which further take me away from where I've started, etc.

    I think the point is that the internet is made as a continuing series of distractions, and there may be a lot of validity to the argument. I haven't read the book nor heard the piece you've identified for us, so I don't have any strong reactions so far, but i think I favor the general spirit of what the author has to say.

    On the other hand, I'll have to read it to find out, yes? :-)



  2. I've been hoping to read the book to determine specifically where Carr is coming from -- as there is the risk with these reviews and summaries of misrepresenting a potentially complicated position. However, the analogy here is most certainly week. A better analogy is Linda Stone's notion of continuous partial attention, which was further advanced by Steven Berlin Johnson (and confused with the parallel of multi-tasking). Humans have multitasked without an Internet connection so long as there have been distractions or additional stimuli to attract curiosity. That many of the Gladwellian Luddites fail to compare the experience of reading a newspaper while getting lost in some observation across the cafe with what Steven Riddle legitimately identifies is part of the problem. And we won't have a proper discussion on cognitive processing and the attention span unless we acknowledge the abundant distractions that existed before the Internet.

  3. Dear Steven,
    First, I'm Frank -- let's skip the Mr. Wilson.
    I think what you have observed or experienced is very common with every new toy. We play with it incessantly for a while, then settle back into out normal selves. These recurring screeds about what the internet is doing to us leave out the factor that we are -- the great Brian of Nazareth reminded us -- all individuals who can think for ourselves. For the past few days I have spent as much time as I could reading my friend Paula Marantz Cohen's forthcoming novel, What Alice Knew. Ir sucked me into late 19th-century London at the time of the Whitechapel murders, placed me in the company of Henry, William, and Alice James, and also Walter Sickert and John Singer Sargent. It was much pleasanter being there than here -- in many respects at least. Every true reader knows that experience. And to think that the internet is going to take it was from such people is to think very little of such people.
    Ed, of course, is right. My response was based on a review. And not all reviews can be trusted. Ed should review Carr's book. We must work on that.
    By the way, I spent 28 years working in front of a computer. I learned ver soon to ignore email alerts. I couldn't interrupt editinga story to check email.

  4. I dunno.

    I found the John Horgan review you linked to earlier to be quite good. Its argument was clear and convincing.

    So maybe it's a bit of a question of which review to believe, short of reading the actual book.

  5. Anonymous1:30 AM


    I've read the book. The "crossword" analogy you react to is here taken out of context. In the book it comes after a discussion of a study that indicated that using the web in some cases "exercises" the brain the way that doing a crossword puzzle does. The reaction to the study in the press was that "the web makes you smarter!" Carr points out that it's not that simple, that in fact the kind of rapid-fire "exercise" the web promotes may reduce our capacity for deep, attentive thought. The analogy to doing a crossword puzzle while reading a book is simply a closing remark that underscores the possible conflict between the two ways of thinking.

    It's actually quite a thoughtful book.

    I enjoy your blog.

  6. Than you, Anonymous. for filling me on that. It certainly makes a good deal more sense when placed in context. I will have to give all of this some more thought.