Book Talk: the Shallows

18 Feb

The information in this book is fascinating, even life-changing. Carr gives us a layout of our brain’s response to technology, along with details on how and why our brains change as we adopt digital lifestyles. He describes the plasticity of our brains and how, with constant use of digital technologies, we are training our brains to move quickly from task to task, without full immersion or sustained focus. He also shares the history of some major technological advances, from the clock to the book to the internet. He describes how each new technology affected us deeply, shifting not only the ease of our days but the fabric of our cultures.

The information here was enough to make me reconsider my own digital lifestyle — my increasing reliance on the internet (especially in the past ten years) and my own drifting sense of focus. Carr’s text has gotten to me. I’m writing my drafts by hand again and have moved my calendar and to do lists to paper. I’m seeking ways to immerse my mind — to hold sustained focus rather than constant movement.

At the same time, I have serious reservations about some of the conclusions Carr has reached here. Carr discusses deep thinking as nearly synonymous with linear thinking — and with this comes a stance that linear thought is often (or even always) best. Carr’s is an all-or-nothing view of deep thinking. Either we are linear, deep thinkers or we are distracted, non-linear machines, clicking on whatever suits our fancy. With this, I disagree.

I don’t believe deep thinking must be linear. If Modernist, Postmodernist, and contemporary writers are any measure, deep thinking can certainly come without linear thought. Writers (even Western writers) have been doing this in narrative for more than a century, as narrative includes photos and stream of conscious interior monologue, epiphany, multiple points of view, multiple plots. While Carr assumes that narrative works like a line (as we move from point A to point B in orderly fashion), I see narrative — and especially contemporary narrative — more as a bowl, holding, to use Carr’s words, a “self-contained literary work” that may or may not bring us from point A to B, linear-style.

In assuming that linear thought (and, by default, Western thought) is somehow superior to other kinds of thinking, I think Carr may have missed his own point. Knowing what we know about the brain, about deep thinking, and about the lure of the internet, I think we can make better choices about how we tune our focus — whether that focus follows a linear path or one that travels in circles, spirals, star shapes, or rings.

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