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Dear Internet User: Focus. Come on, Foooocuuuus

June 22, 2010

This interview is a bit of a shocker. When I read it, I realized that every one of the points (except those about Facebook and Twitter) could be said about me.

Here are some of the ways in which Internet usage may be shaping our lives.

Thanks to D’Arcy.

by Dakshana Bascaramurty

Toronto Globe and Mail

Jun. 21, 2010

Here’s a challenge: See if you can get through this entire Q&A without checking your e-mail, your text messages or Google.

According to technology critic Nicholas Carr, the Internet has infiltrated our lives so completely, we can’t concentrate on most deep-thinking tasks without seeking distractions.

In his latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Mr. Carr, 51, examines the way the Internet has fundamentally changed the way our brains work. He spoke to The Globe from his home in Colorado.

At the start of your book you mention this one Rhodes scholar – a philosophy major to boot – who openly admits he doesn’t read books any more. And he says he can get what he needs more efficiently from Google. So make the case to me: What is the value in reading long-form narratives?

When we’re just Googling or just zipping around from Web pages, we draw in information very quickly from many sources but because it’s often a very distracted way of gathering information, it never makes the transition from our short-term memory to our long-term memory.

When you engage in long-form reading and particularly long-form reading in print, where there aren’t any distractions coming from the medium itself, it’s just the words. Through our pace of reading and through the attentiveness, we are able to get much more information much more deeply into our brain, into our long-term memory, and [we] begin making those connections with our own experiences, with books we might have read, other information we might have had.

You’re talking about reading texts where you don’t have distractions. In your book you cite multiple studies that suggest that when people are reading hypertext – containing links to other material – they retain and comprehend less than they would when reading linear text. Why do you think our brains haven’t evolved in step with that?

I think there’s some basic constraints in the brain that you simply can’t work around. One of them is the limited capacity of our working or short-term memory, which is basically the same as our consciousness. If you do a lot of the types of information juggling that we do online, some people can slightly increase the capacity of their working memory, which means you will have a better grasp of the information. One of the problems with the way we behave online is that unfortunately, kind of everything becomes a fast-paced stimulus. The important and the trivial start blurring together in that world.

You write, “for most of history, the normal path of human thought was anything but linear.” That before we started deep reading, we were programmed to be distracted constantly. If we didn’t pay attention to all these competing stimuli, we might even put ourselves in danger. Aren’t we just reverting to the way we always were? Or do you think that society is different now?

I think society is different now. But I think that when it comes to our modes of thought and attentiveness, there is a seeming regression going on in which our medium of choice – the Web – rewards that primitive way of thinking where we’re constantly shifting our attention, constantly paying attention to a whole bunch of things at once, but never focusing in, or very rarely focusing in on one thing. There was a certain danger involved a long time ago in filtering out environmental stimuli because those stimuli might have given a warning of danger or a clue to where food might be and you might not live very long. So in some ways it does seem like a regression to a more natural, but also, I think, more superficial, ultimately, way of thinking.

We don’t need to delete anything any more because we have all of these drives that will store it all. Do you think that people offload personal memories onto these external drives as a replacement for long-term memory?

I argue in the book that what we might be seeing is a self-amplifying type of loop that the more we come to rely on the databases or the net for access to information, the weaker our memory gets and, as a result of that, we have to depend and rely even more on databases, the Web.

Google said long ago that one of its goals was to eventually create artificial intelligence. But you say that the company underestimates the complexity of the human brain when it makes that its goal. Do you think that artificial intelligence will always be the stuff of science fiction?

We’ve been using computers for quite a long time now, they’ve been getting faster and more sophisticated at an extraordinary rate – and there’s no hint of consciousness in our computers. I think the idea that a human-like intelligence is going to be produced from a computer or any other kind of machine is far-fetched. We can begin to trust our computers to kind of do extraordinarily rapid calculations that the human brain is simply incapable of, but it’s still dependent on the programming that goes into it and the assumptions of the programming. As we’ve seen in the financial area and other areas, it can be dangerous to put too much trust and too much faith into that kind of rapid processing.

While reading The Shallows, as you talked about how you felt technology had rewired your brain and made it difficult to focus on tasks, the whole time I was wondering, ‘How the heck did he manage to write this book?’ So you explain that you had to disconnect yourself. How long did it actually take you to rewire your brain to the way it was before you started using the Internet?

It took about two weeks or so. Your first reaction when you’re really used to being connected and checking your e-mail all the time and getting all these messages and finding all this information … is kind of a form of panic. It took a couple of weeks to get over that. I could definitely feel a difference in terms of my ability to sit down and read without my mind darting around after a few paragraphs and forcing myself to pay attention. And not only reading, but the sense of having a calmer mind in some way and more attentive and more able to concentrate on something.

You’ve gotten back in somewhat, but what are [your self-imposed] limitations?

I haven’t gone back on the Facebook and I haven’t gone back to the Twitter. I’m trying to avoid the type of services that tend to bombard you with lots of short and often kind of personal messages – I think those are the most disruptive and hard to break away from.

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