Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Brain Freeze

Over the past few weeks I've been slowly working my way through two things - marking student work for end of term and Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows. Carr is a former editor of The Harvard Business Review and has already written several books about the internet phenomenon. This effort has garnered him a nomination and position as finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction and with this book he's tapped into the creeping societal anxiety about how the Internet is changing us. He's also asked one of the most important questions of our current times, particularly for educators: As we enjoy the newfound productivity and wealth that the Net brings, are we also sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply - i.e. is the internet also in danger of making us stupid?

In The Shallows, Carr describes how human thought has been shaped through the centuries by “tools of the mind” — from the alphabet, to maps, to the printing press, the clock, and the computer — as well as the technologies we use to find, store, and share information reroute our neural pathways. 

He explains how the book focuses our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. The Internet however encourages the rapid sampling of small bits of information from many sources. We are becoming faster and more efficient at scanning and skim-reading, but what we are losing is our capacity for depth - concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

I found Carr's book a great read with memorable sections on Nietzsche's insights into the technology of his typewriter, Freud dissecting the brains of sea creatures, Nathaniel Hawthorne discussing the importance of the steam locomotive — as well as asking profound questions about our current evolution as thinking human beings. This is a book that is an easy read, backed up with hard empirical evidence. As an educator in a school with a laptop program, it raised numerous questions, as well as supplying some answers and challenges. Highly recommended to any thinking person - particularly those of us who are finding ourselves more and more wired and net-reliant.

We currently spend more and more of our time in front of two-dimensional electronic screens and receive vast amounts of disembodied information and we are slowly realising there is a difference between access and the experience of information. People are slowly questioning the process implementing their own "screen-free" days and trying different schemes for reconnecting with ourselves, our friends and our 


My next book beside the bed is Hamlet's Blackberry -(A Practical Guide for Building the Good Life in the Digital Age). I've already made a start on Hamlet and he makes some similar observations as Carr, but Powers is interested in the lowering of productivity as a result of moving between email and tasks in the workplace - the false economy of the new form of technologically based productivities. More practical than Carr's Shallows, I'll be interested in seeing/reading what William Powers comes up with in his effort and pass on the suggestions soon.

Burn brightly, Pete

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