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There is huge growth in the phenomenon of never really being anywhere. We are becoming a nation of continuous partial attenders. This little film makes the point well. Our times are becoming known as the Age of Interruption. How do you feel about that?
In a superb book, ‘The Shallows, How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember.’ Nicholas Carr collects and explores the evidence for ‘plasticity’ – the brain’s ability to form new pathways when old ones fall into disuse, and the growing body of work on how frequent internet users are changing their relationship with information. More fundamentally, how our relationship with screen-borne information is changing the way we think – and what we think is important.
Here are a couple of snippets from Nicholas Carr’s analysis: see if you can relate to these: “It was then that i began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I thought that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realised wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it – and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected…the Internet was turning me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine, a human HAL (from 2001 A Space Odyssey). I missed my old brain.” (p16)
And: “Studies of office workers reveal that they constantly stop what they’re doing to read and respond to incoming e-mails. It’s not unusual for them to glance at their in-box thirty or forty times an hour.” (though when asked how frequently they look, they’ll often give a much lower figure.) (p132)
Finally: “There is no Sleepy Hollow on the Internet, no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic…the experiments, say the scholars, indicate that the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion and other emotions. (p220)
SO, DOES IT MATTER?, I can imagine many readers thinking, ‘so what, this is just progress and evolution, get over it, you old fool!’ But think a bit more closely for a moment before you consign me to the rest home: have you wondered why, when so many indicators point out a lack of opportunity and prosperity for the young, there is not more rage and public demonstration? Have you wondered why, when there has been virtually no growth in ordinary – including middle class – incomes in 10 years [and thirty years if you relate it to cost of living!] there is not a nationwide movement for better pay? Could it be because of the dissociation and fragmentation that is part of the Internet culture. Don’t stay on any website for more than 3o seconds, don’t be left out, don’t let your Inbox be unattended. We are working constantly at fragments: are we losing the capability to respond to the whole?
In the 1950’s Martin Heidegger observed that “the looming tide of the technological revolution could so captivate, bewitch, dazzle and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking.” Our ability to engage in meditative thinking, which he saw as “the very essence of our humanity,” might become a victim of headlong progress. Apologies for taking up so much of your time! On the other hand, if you’d like a pdf of this, it’s here: