19 October 2010

the shallows

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010).

It is always a struggle for those in pastorates to read outside of our normal scope of biblical studies and theology. Sometimes, it is enough of a struggle just to accomplish any reading at all! However, I stand firm in the belief that it is of great benefit to find books that stretch, challenge and give new perspective to the daily routines of ministry and/or academic study of Scripture. Having said that, I am happy to have taken this recommendation and worked my way through The Shallows, a social-scientific study of what effect the internet culture is having on the human mind.

In short, the book is good . . . the reality of the shallows is not so good.

One summary statement that catches the heart of the book is this: "Our use of the Internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term influence over how we think is this one: the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it" (118). It appears that the constant exposure to a technology age based upon the internet is altering the way the human mind functions, in most cases to the loss of sustained and contemplative thought. In the (not-too-distant) past we would find ourselves immersed in books that allowed us to follow a story, argument, logic, etc. With the advent of the Internet age we instead find that we scan pages quickly for bits of information and care very little about sustained thought.

The further effect of this phenomenon is described as such: "Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it . . . We revert to being 'mere decoders of information.' Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged" (122).

Research has shown that the brain is capable of remapping itself and discovering new ways of working to accommodate a lifestyle, a set of chores and tasks, or an approach of thought. With the internet we discover that the human brain is altering its way of thinking which bypass the areas which provide deep thought. Hence, there is an overall shallowing of the mind which may or may not be apparent in daily life.

There are many causes for this that exist in our culture, and the internet should not be labeled as either good or bad, but the way we utilize it will undoubtedly change us forever. Some believe that we are becoming more sophisticated as a culture because of our electronic devices and internet access. However, the measure of this inherently flawed in that our capacity to work information into our memories and imaginations becomes limited by the fact that we no longer have to remember or work for what we want to know in a given moment. Search engines and hyperlink texts have made information so readily available that we can obtain instant gratification for our queries, and never break an intellectual sweat for knowledge.

It is unfortunate that wisdom will never be discovered in such a lifestyle.

Finally, "The Net is making us smarter . . . only if we define intelligence by the Net's own standards. If we take a broader and more traditional view of intelligence . . . we have to come to a different and considerably darker conclusion" (141).

We believed that the world was contained in this little thing called the internet. It turns out that it became a bubble which shelters us from the world and all of the wisdom and wonder of the created order around us.

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