I heard an interview the other day with Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The basic idea is that the brain is a flexible machine that grows and improves itself based on how it is used. If you spend a lot of time practicing an activity, like playing the piano, your brain is designed to emphasize those skills so that it’s better suited for each subsequent try. While the brain is improving in one area, however, those that remain unused don’t get the same type of attention.
Mr. Carr’s argument suggests that throuh years of surfing the web and becoming daily more immersed in the online experience, we have trained our brains to be good at that type of interaction. Reading an article, we expect lots of links and widgets pulling in and exposing lots of information at one time. The very activity – “surfing” – expresses the flowing nature which is really good for absorbing a broad range of information at once. This breadth, however, comes at the cost of depth. Just as Nicholas describes, we find ourselves leaping from thing to thing without the same kind of focus and dedication as we might with a long news article or chapter of a book.
Conversations come in short chat or text messages, squeezed in between or layered on top of other activities. At any given time, I have access to huge wealths of information, but not the time or focus to get into any of it. It takes real work to hone in on the details of anything and we’ve been training ourselves to do be bad at exactly this. Skimming the surface can be great, but it comes at a cost. It will be a sad day when generations begin to grow up in a world of hyper-experience, without the grounding of concrete and focused interaction with the world.