Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Shallows Review

I don’t think I am the only one to whom this has happened. (And you can tell from the opener I am an English professor very concerned with the correct use of pronouns.)

I have before me, on a bright and sunny day, a stack of essays to grade for my English 1101 class. They need to be graded; they need my full attention; the students need helpful, solid feedback. I pull out my pen and start. Ah, but first, let me see if I have any messages on Facebook. That is important because, well, that is the way I communicate with the students in the Registered Student Organization I sponsor. So off to Facebook. No, no messages. Well, let me check the “Who’s Online” function because my son might be on and I have a prompting (from the Holy Spirit, I can argue) to see how he is and give him a word of encouragement. He is three hours away at college and has said his senior year is kicking his rear. No, he’s not online; that’s good, he should be working, and normally his Facebook account is always up. Oh, wait a minute; I am expecting an email on my Yahoo account from someone. Let me go over there. No, it’s not there, but on the Yahoo main page is an article on a certain subject, and I was going to check on Amazon for a book about that I had read a review about on the Christianity Today/Books and Culture website. So off to Amazon; oh, yes, better check my book while I am over there, to see if it moved up in ranking—no, it’s still higher than two million. Oh, well. Now what about that book? OK, well, it’s still more than I want to pay right now, but that book’s ranking is about 600. I need to stop buying books anyway. Uh, did I actually check my Yahoo email? No. Back to Yahoo. I notice that William Shatner is at the top of the list on “Who’s Trending Now.” Did he die? (as if I care or he’s a personal acquaintance). No, he’s going to be on some new show or something. Well, before I get into these essays on my desk that are crying to be read, I’d better check my email and my online courses website again. Oh, here’s a couple of emails I‘d better answer.

Sometime later, I have to go to the bathroom, and the coffee pot calls as well as nature. I come back from that adventure down the hall, but not before congratulating myself that I am getting away from my screen and my office chair to take a break. In fact, when I emerge from my office, I stretch and say to the passer-by, “I’m coming out of my hole.” When I return, the essays are still there. I start to grade them, and do finish, but then the grades have to be posted—where else, online.

The cycle continues.

And I’m exhausted.

Did I say it was a bright and sunny day? Why wasn’t I more tempted to go outside and listen to birds sing and feel the sun on my face?

Recently I checked out Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows from the campus library (I had to wait for it; someone else had it before me. I hate waiting for books from the library. How slow is that?) I found out I am not alone in my cycle of exhaustion created by the endless number of online sites I feel compelled to visit. I found out why. I found out that my brain is being restructured because of my use, nay, my dependence on the Internet. I have long suspected I had ADD, but, since I was born in 1955, it was back when nobody cared about it, and I learned to cope. And I have long suspected that my use of the Internet has exacerbated any ADD I might have.

It turns out I am right, Nicholas Carr tells me. In this immensely readable book, he explains how our brains are not machine-like information processors, but organic and adaptable creators; how our bodies and brains become one with our tools; how McLuhan was prescient about “the medium is the message;” how our memories cannot be outsourced to Google (my suspicions about the sinister nature of Google were somewhat confirmed); how we anthropomorphize computers and computer interactions; how user-friendly software makes us less likely to solve problems ourselves. This is just a taste of the topics in the book.

As a college instructor, I was especially interested in what he says about reading. While some Internet enthusiasts extol the virtues of our new-found ability to skip about, multi-task, and skim, our abilities and opportunities to do “deep-reading” are diminishing. This bothers me the most. I have long known that I did not read off of a screen well; I always attributed it to eyesight issues and lighting. But there is more to it than that. We are starting, Carr says, to read down a page in an F pattern. The first couple of lines fully, then skip a few lines, then a shorter part of the succeeding lines, then skip to the bottom. This analysis resonated with me. Whether this pattern is due to the visual difficulty of reading from a screen or the information overload and frenetic (that word or sense of that word appears a great deal in The Shallows) bombardment of visual sensations from the Internet, we are starting to apply that kind of “skimming” to reading from paper.

Carr delves into subjects of memory and mindfulness, among many others, in this book. I cannot do The Shallows justice in this review. It was as good as a futuristic horror story, a glimpse into a sort of dystopian culture like that of Brave New World. At least it was for me. Others will not be bothered by it. I don’t consider myself a Luddite, but I would like to stop the clock as far as the effects of the Internet are concerned (he writes about clocks, too, and maps, and how they affected our individual and collective brains).

What he doesn’t delve into, and this is a subject for a different study, is how the Internet is affecting our social relationships. The ability of Facebook to bring people together is a fiction, as far as I am concerned. Yes, it is nice to hear from old friends, and it is nice to chat with a few friends through that little box at the bottom of the screen. Nice—a vague word, a substitute word. However, I think we are just fooling ourselves. We can assuage our consciences that we have “communicated” when we have taken a few minutes to do what would have taken real commitment in the past. I know for me, I have become lax about sending greeting cards because I easily type “Happy birthday” on someone’s “wall.” Isn’t it the same? And I have saved myself the $3.00 that would have gone to Hallmark or American Greetings, and the 44-cent stamp. Efficient and cost-effective, and the person receiving the greetings should be just as happy.

Beyond this example, Facebook and other social media—just like emails and cell phones, do not expand our sense of connection to other people. They give us a false feeling of having done so. My son has over 1,000 friends on Facebook. He knows this is a joke; even worse, he doesn’t really care about the people on his “friends” list. I have “friends” whom I allowed on because I thought they were someone else (I have a mere 304 at this count.) Social media force us, I believe, through directing our attention to a computer screen, to narrow our social relationships.

As I have said before, I think Facebook is aptly named because it enhances our narcissism. As the character Narcissus died from admiring himself in a pond, Facebook lets us admire our trivial and ethereal posts, forever. It is a mirror, not a window to others. I love it when a Facebook friend can report on the last morning spent with his dying wife. I enjoy the pictures of a child’s first birthday. I laugh at crazy videos people post (and cringe at some of the others). I wonder who those people are in the pictures where my son is “tagged.” But--I loathe the “don’t know what to eat for lunch” posts. I get visceral reactions to “Having a bad hair day” updates. The old cartoon showed two dogs with their paws on mouses, one saying, “On the Internet no one knows you are a dog.” On the Internet, it is almost impossible to distinguish between worthwhile information and fluff.

Finally, and I know this to be the case, the Internet allows us to be even more selective about the information we access. If I just want to read right-wing websites, I can. I don’t have to be exposed to an alternative viewpoint. I think an argument could be made that as the media have proliferated, sources of the media have become more and more extremist, left or right. If I get all my news from MSNBC or CNN or Fox, but don’t overlap (and why should I?), I am limiting my vision, despite the fact there are more and more sources available. The availability of choices does not mean we use more choices. Furthermore, limiting of sources of information will only limit critical thinking because we do not have to sift and judge as to why the two or three versions of a story might be different.

I know, I know. Women are not supposed to be curmudgeons, and I would like to think I am not old enough to be one yet. I am a hypocrite because I am posting this to a blog. But I am deeply concerned that we are losing mindfulness, attentiveness, reflection, openness to human experience, awareness of the person standing beside us in line, empathy, and perseverance. The Shallows has forced me to examine where I get my information, how much time I spend online, how I depend on electronic devices to communicate, and even my time management decisions. If a book does that, I have to recommend it enthusiastically.

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