The Internet, My Brain and the Traveling Pants

Two weeks into the summer, I’ve finished two books.  Which seems like a low number, considering all of the leisure time I should have, but I’ve been super busy with my new furniture (fun!), summer job (also surprisingly fun!), and a conference at Rutgers (fun, dorkily enough).  I’m also currently reading seriously at least three books and listening to another–love the summer!

The first book I finished was The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.  If you haven’t heard of this book yet, its subtitle is “What the internet is doing to our brains.”  As a teacher of students who are immersed in Internet culture and a frequent user of the internet myself, I was interested–what WAS the Internet doing to my brain?  The answer, according to Carr, is ruining it.

Well, maybe ruining is a harsh word.  Carr’s argument is that, because of neuroplasticity, dong something over and over again actually changes the way our brain works.  According to Carr, surfing the internet makes it hard for our brains to concentrate.  When we’re reading, we’re not really focused on what we’re doing.  We skim for pertinent information, then move on.  When we read on the internet, we’re constantly evaluating the links, images and information presented to us, to see what we can use next.  Carr claims that surfing the Internet for just 30 minutes a day for five days in a row will actually change the way our brain works.

I doubt that anyone who’s ever spent any time on the Internet would argue with Carr.  I see it when I’m reading, when I’m writing and when I’m researching.  The Internet didn’t really become a meaningful part of my life (outside of AOL IM) until college and even then my academic thinking was already grounded in texts.  Because of that, I know my thinking on the subject is probably different from, say, my students’, butI think the effects are definitely real for both groups.

Carr presents his argument by showing us how, historically, new technologies have actually changed the way we think.  He starts with the clock (we’d never before measured time) and the map (or distance).  He then reconnects with his ideas of “deep thinking,” pointing out the switch from oral literacy to written literacy in the Classical Age, telling of Socrates’ lamentations over the lost are of memory.  Finally the printing press and the ability for the masses to read, not just the elite.  Here’s where my quibble with his argument lies.

Carr presents all of these new technologies as ground-breaking because they allow people to “think deeper.”  But he never explains what he means by thinking deeply.  The Internet, with its easy access to information and countless links to evaluate, will cause us to “think shallowly.”  But he never explains what he means by thinking shallowly.  There are lots of counter arguments to be made.  Couldn’t easier access to information allow more people to learn and think about research that otherwise would be lost to them?  Doesn’t the compulsion to evaluate links (deciding which to click on) force us to think critically (if not deeply)? Conversely, aren’t there really awful books that DON’T cause people to “think deeply”?  (Please see subsequent paragraphs on my love for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series.)  Carr himself sounds like Socrates, lamenting the loss of a medium without thinking about the possible benefits of its successor.

I agree with Carr–over-reliance on the Internet clearly changes the way we think.  It changes the things we think about and it changes the way we rad when we’re not reading on the Internet.  But Carr paints it as an exclusively doom and gloom situation and I just don’t think that’s true.  I think that, if utilized correctly, the Internet can be a great tool.  It’s the utilization that counts, as it does with books.

That being said, I must disclose that, the day after I finished The Shallows I had to go to a conference at Rutgers.  In one section of the book, Carr writes of a study in which students who brought a laptop to class retained far less information than those who didn’t, even then they only used the laptop for “class-related activities” (and not Facebook).  I decided to stick with my pen and notebook for the week and really felt present in the workshop.

The other book I finished was Sisterhood Everlasting, the final entry in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series.  I wish I could tell you that I was reading this for school, that I thought students would love it.  And while I think they might, this book was all for me.  I loved the Traveling Pants books as a Young Adult (although I will admit that I was far too old for them when I began reading them), and I was curious to see what I thought if this adult entry.  I’ve read one of Brashares’ other adult books The Last Summer (of You and Me), and I really loved it.  Light, fluffy and perfect for summer, if you were wondering.  Sisterhood Everlasting did not disappoint.  I finished it in just two days, and it would have been fewer if I didn’t have a summer job.  I laughed, I cried (more than I’m willing to admit).  It was the perfect book to follow The Shallows because of its readability.

What a delightful start to my summer reading!

Full Disclosure: Since beginning this post, I finished Ann Patchett’s latest novel State of Wonder.  I loved it, I loved it, I loved it.  Look for a post on that soon, because it doesn’t deserve to be tacked on the end of this one.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Internet, My Brain and the Traveling Pants

  1. Interesting. I’m in my fifties, so I have a lot of experience with how my thinking (and writing) has changed as a result of computers and the Internet, since I did a lot of thinking (and writing) before they were available.

    Carr seems to be doing something fairly common: he’s correctly identfying an objective phenomenon, and then he’s attaching a subjective value judgement to it. And his value judgement seems persuasive because he’s analyzed the phenomenon accurately, but it doesn’t sound like he makes the case. For one thing, you can’t prove a phenonenon if you don’t define it. 🙂

    I wrote about another review of Carr’s book on my blog a while back:
    http://u-town.com/collins/?p=1949

    Your point about students with laptops versus paper and pen is interesting. I was at a two-day software conference a while back, and most people had laptops, and I had pen and paper (easier to carry, that was the main reason). I was really engaged throughout and I still refer back to points that were made there. (I took a lot of notes, which I never refer to, but I think it’s established by testing that even the act of taking notes helps fix things in the memory). But of course that’s just subjective observation; all the other people there with their laptops may remember it just as well as I do.

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