Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Carr’

The death of reading and the state of the soul

Monday, July 24th, 2017
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Years ago, when I wrote the introduction to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszI made some remarks about the Nobel poet’s consideration of the world of “être” and “devenir” – and a world where reading has been replaced by tweets. We live in an era of globalization—as literary scholar Valentina Polukhina describes it, “a period in which our long history has been put into single storage.”

My publisher chided me for sounding like an old fogey – but of course I wasn’t talking about what was happening to the younger generation. I was talking about what was happening to me, and the fragmentation of my own attention. The passage in question:

Sven Birkerts regrets the loss of “deep reading.”

Miłosz’s worldview, his sense of hierarchy and values, puts him squarely, if reluctantly, in a select spiritual salon. In our times, it is a lonely place to be. Miłosz has become an icon, his works canonical, but head-on-a-coin status can often be a substitute for real understanding. This is particularly true when those spending the coins never lived under the Generalgouvernement of the Gestapo. For Generation Y, the communism years (and communism itself) constitute only a tedious chapter in history textbooks. … It may be a universal truth that a younger generation must try to distance itself from the seriousness of purpose in an older generation of giants.

This mileage provides a raison d’être for this book, as the distance stretches to the horizon’s vanishing point and threatens with extinction the very values Miłosz endeavored to preserve. This statement is more than old fogeyism or the specter of apocalypse—for Miłosz’s peers are almost entirely gone (he would have been one hundred years old in 2011), and, moreover, the restlessness, the segmentation of attention, and the increasing difficulty in absorbing anything more than 140 characters long are not merely traits of the younger generation but affect us all. Few can deny the dizzying rate of social and technological upheaval in the information age, where we communicate in real time with Peru and Twitter back what we hear, yet human greed, cowardice, and power-lust remain essentially the same. That acceleration, juxtaposed with man’s fallibility, is very much to the point.

One metric for measuring the chasm pertains to what Miłosz called être and devenir. (Or, to put a Thomist slant on it, he uses the Latin esse elsewhere.) When I interviewed him at his legendary Grizzly Peak home a decade ago, I asked him about être and devenir. He dodged the question: “My goodness. A big problem,” he said.

After some hesitation, however, he elaborated. “We are in a flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.

“In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Postmodernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.”

Then he retreated to his initial reservations: “In truth, I am afraid of discussing this subject. The subject needs extreme precision. In conversation, it’s not possible.”

That was seven or eight years ago. Now everyone’s caught up with me, or perhaps everyone has caught up with Miłosz. Most recently, Philip Yancey observed the same thing. From the Washington Post:

The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.

Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, “If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…” Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.

Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up. In a famous experiment, rats keep pressing a lever to get that dopamine rush, choosing it over food or sex. In humans, emails also satisfy that pleasure center, as do Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.

Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows analyzes the phenomenon, and its subtitle says it all: “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” Carr spells out that most Americans, and young people especially, are showing a precipitous decline in the amount of time spent reading. He says, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” A 2016 Nielsen report calculates that the average American devotes more than 10 hours per day to consuming media—including radio, TV, and all electronic devices. That constitutes 65 percent of waking hours, leaving little time for the much harder work of focused concentration on reading.

In “The Gutenberg Elegies,” Sven Birkerts laments the loss of “deep reading,” which requires intense concentration, a conscious lowering of the gates of perception, and a slower pace. His book hit me with the force of conviction. I keep putting off Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age,” and look at my shelf full of Jürgen Multmann’s theology books with a feeling of nostalgia—why am I not reading books like that now?

Why indeed? Time to open all those J.M. Coetzee novels I have waiting on the shelves. Or return to Dostoevsky. Read the WaPo article here.

King Ludd himself: Nicholas Carr on little bits of information flying across a screen

Monday, June 20th, 2011
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Tiny bits of data zinging into your brain

I posted a couple weeks ago on Nicholas Carr‘s newest takedown of technology.  That was a few days after I wrote about Bill Keller‘s apparently unpopular column, “The Twitter Trap.”

James Temple’s dot.commentary over at the San Francisco Chronicle acknowledged the buzz: “The general take was that he was an old-media Luddite threatened by things he couldn’t understand. If Keller is a Luddite within these circles, Nicholas Carr is King Ludd himself, ready to smash the machines to preserve a world long ago lost.”

Well that’s not quite true.  Carr, when Temple tracked him down last week for a Q&A: said: “There are all sorts of benefits, intellectual or cognitive, that we get from the Internet. The most obvious is the fact that it’s much easier to find information than it was in the past, and that’s obviously a huge benefit in many instances. It’s also much easier to communicate very quickly with lots of people, and that can help a lot, particularly when you’re trying to solve particular problems.”

However, he added, “I think you really have no choice but to try to restrict the amount of time and the amount of mental energy that goes into watching information fly by on the screen.”

That’s kind of tame.  Then he was asked about the buzz he and Keller stirred:

Is contemplative thought expendable?

Q: There seems to be a reflexive reaction to your ideas in the tech world. When Bill Keller raised questions about Twitter in his recent column, some said dismissively that he was channeling Nicholas Carr, like it was an obvious insult. What do you think drives that kind of response?

A: One is that a lot of people, particularly people in the tech world, are deeply invested in technology. I mean economically invested, although they are also ideologically invested. Central to their thinking is that progress in computers equates to progress of humanity and society.

If you’re working in this area, that assumption makes you feel good about yourself and so you want to defend it when you hear someone making basic criticisms. Your natural reaction is to paint a caricature of nostalgia or Ludditism. That seems to be a completely normal reaction.

And second, I think there are simply people who don’t share my belief that more contemplative thought is important. They think getting as much information and processing it as quickly as possible, is really the height of their intellectual life. If you don’t care about quiet or more contemplative thought, then obviously you’re not going to even understand where I’m coming from.

Now that‘s scary.  Read the whole thing here.  Meanwhile, cheer up!  According to ReadWriteWeb, websites – including this one – will disappear within the next few years.  Boy, will that be a whole bunch of time down the toilet.

Meanwhile, Sara Barbour over at the Los Angeles Times thinks Kindle is way overrated – here.

You see? Just like I said… Nicholas Carr thinks so, too.

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011
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We're still stupid, he says

“I think as a society we’re choosing information overload: we’re choosing to sacrifice the more meditative and contemplative aspects of our minds.”

I wrote on just this subject a few days ago, in a post entitled “Are We ‘Outsourcing Our Brains to the Cloud?’” – then I ran across the latest from technology writer Nicholas Carr, who appears to agree, as shown in his comment above.  His latest book, The Shallows, discusses what he fears the Internet is doing to our brains.  It’s sold 50K hardbacks in the U.S. alone – that’s real books, with paper pages.

Carr, the blogger behind Rough Type and the author of the controversial Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” got his first PC back in the 1980s and was an avid net user until “a few years ago, I noticed some disturbing changes in the way my mind worked. I was losing the ability to concentrate.”  According to the AFP article:

While the Internet has enormous benefits in delivering incredible amounts of information at incredible speed, it’s also a distracting and interruption-rich environment.

Carr said it encourages quick shifts in focus – and discourages sustained attention and the ability to think deeply and creatively about one topic and to challenge conventional wisdom.

Carr concluded, “We take in so much information so quickly that we are in a constant state of cognitive overload.”  He added that “multitasking erodes cognitive control. We lose our ability to say that this is important, this is unimportant. All we want is new information.”  However, when we open a real book with real pages, “there’s nothing else going on except words on a page, no distractions. It helps train us to be deep thinkers.”

Over at Books Inq., my previous column generated a few comments. Frank Wilson hoped we could find a sort of middle way:  “I think the problem is real, at least potentially. I just think we may be making too much of it. I have noticed, now that I have returned to work, that my memory is sharper for some reason. I think may be we just have to make some time to do things the old-fashioned way, things like memorizing poems. The way we still make bread, though we can buy it at the store.”

I hoped so, too.  But so far, Carr hasn’t had much success:

Carr admitted he himself has not had great success in limiting the time he spends online. But the biggest change he made as a writer and researcher was to use the web only to track down source material.

“Then I’d make an effort to actually read those things in print. I did find that made a big difference in my ability to be attentive and a thorough reader and hopefully a deeper thinker.”

But Carr said it was not just a matter of individual choice. If friends, colleagues and employers were constantly on line, “then you feel in many ways compelled to do so even if you don’t want to, because you don’t want to damage your career or your social life”.