Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Thank goodness it's not just me

Remember when you were a kid and the grown-ups were always trying to drag you away from the TV and make you run around outside and play? They always said, "That thing will rot your brain and make you stupid". And they were right weren't they? A lot of people either don't have a TV now, don't watch the one they've got or are trying to cut back. The word is out about the TV and we're on to its little game of trying to make everyone into stupid and docile puppets of the state (or Big Business or whatever).

But has anyone else noticed that we have just traded one massive distraction for another?

Anyone care to guess what that distraction is? Here's a hint: How many times in the last month have you been up past midnight with the computer on your lap? Did you even notice?

Steve has posted something that I've been thinking for some time. The internet is doing something to our brains. Something bad. It's not merely a matter of the strange powers of the internet to suck time and put us into a kind of fugue state in which the room we are sitting in recedes into the mist. I once went to confession and said that I was guilty of wasting time on the internet and often found it very difficult to drag myself away, even to do things that I genuinely enjoyed or needed to do. The priest, whom I knew well and is a net-head himself, said, "It can be hypnotic, can't it?"

Are we being hypnotised? And if we are, what sort of suggestions are being put into our heads?

But it is not only this. Not only the attention span problem. Something about the net is altering the way I think.

It has been obvious to me for some time that the internet is doing something bad to my brain and I'm not the only one thinking it.

Steve links to an article in the Atlantic that discusses this. I am somewhat relieved because I had thought it was just me. Some kind of premature senility or perhaps some growing flaw in my personality that I have more or less given up reading deeply and with attention. That more and more of my time is taken up with the little square palantir and I find it increasingly difficult to turn it off and leave it off.

Steve writes:
The way we think has changed, and looking at it from this perspective I see it. I need constant mental stimulation or I am bored out of my mind. I am extremely impatient about getting results, whatever the task at hand. When I have a question about something, or want to know a name I can’t remember, I run to google. If I am at the store and can’t decide between two products, I stand there like an idiot, fire up my PDA internet connection, and start looking for reviews on my way-too-slow connection.

When I read blogs, if the posts are long, my eyes roll back in my head and I start spinning the scroll wheel. When I go to look at an encyclical or some scholarly document to back up a point I’m making, it’s all I can do to just get to the point and cut and paste. I can’t just read through something, I have to Ctrl+F search it for keywords, or use the word tabs on my Google toolbar.

Nicholas Carr, writing for the Atlantic, said,
"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 can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in 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 often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Yep. Me too.

I use the internet for a living and I find myself doing exactly what he Atlantic article said we net-heads are increasingly doing. I don't read deeply or with attention; I scan and skim, pick out quick facts and quotes. These set off a series of connected facts in my head and I go to Google to find the related stuff and do the same again: scan and skim, pick and paste.

Mr. Carr again:
Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link...

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I've been thinking the internet is having a destructive effect on my thinking for some time. I have seen that my addiction to it has been very harmful to my spiritual life.

This morning, as I was having my little sit-down, the following struck me:
"But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!"


Anonymous said...

A very good post, Hilary, although I did have to strain my attention to get through it. I always try to limit my internet use by not recharging the laptop after using up the energy.

Mark S. Abeln said...

How about a nice, long walk in the country?

Anonymous said...

If you stopped blogging entirely, I'd be upset. I really, really like your blog and find it edifying and inspiring in these dark days.

DP said...

Your post was long and lacked distracting colorful graphics.

Cendrillon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The other day I was reading something on the internet and wanted to find a quote from a book on my bookshelf - all the way on the other side of the room. I was virtually incapable of putting my computer aside, standing up and walking to the other side of the room to get it. Not only did I remain in my place, but I searched for an online version of the book in question!

('Cendrillon' was me - has something to do with a flying shoe which I might tell you some time)

But we do like your blog, Hilary!

Anonymous said...

I agree there's a real problem. I'll think about it next Lent.

But I also agree with the people who really like your blog - it's a drop of sanity in an absurd world.

Then there are the related issues.

Kids who "research" school projects by doing a Google search, copying a few paras, and calling it an essay

Young people sitting, walking with an Ipod in their ears, immured from the outside

Not to mention the incredible addictiveness of video games ...

Anonymous said...

Indeed. Now that you (and Nicholas Carr) mention it, it's not reading one does on the 'net, rather perpetual skimming. And the stream of conciousness-ness of it all, that make the hours slip by almost without noticing....That being said, I enjoy your blog and I enjoy your "day job" writings as well. The 'net allows more people to get information on *GOOD* subjects that they had trouble getting before due to lack of access to books (you mention in another post the lack of good libraries in the town where you live). So the 'net has both a good side and a dangerous side. Like...mmmm...alcohol. Going without it entirely would involve a loss of good. But it needs to be controlled. Moderation, I guess, is the key. As in all things. $0.02.