"Our focus on a medium's content can blind us [...]. We're too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what's going on inside our heads" (3)
Nicholas Carr has written a thoughtful and sometimes provocative book about our use of the Internet, suggesting that not only is it our servant, "it is also our master" (4). His point is well-taken, yet it is difficult to believe that such statements could come from Carr, who is just as "connected" as so many of us (perhaps not so ironically, I'm writing about this book on a blog...). He has written for Wired, The Atlantic, and other magazines, and writes elsewhere about technology.
His thesis is that the Internet, where we consume so much information, serves not just as our information center, but is, in a sense, beginning to redefine how our brains process information and think about things, generally. In other words, it affects our higher-order thinking skills: how we analyze and synthesize, contemplate and reflect. It's as if the Internet is rewiring our brains, meaning that our ability to imagine is being altered.
Carr delves into the history of some well-known thinkers as well as the history of technological innovations (such as the movable print press or the typewriter) and how they altered history. He strives to show the human elements that remained resilient during those periods. What is important in these vignettes, though, is how he ends up relating historical research on brain development to larger, technological developments. He makes the reader consider what might be at stake for the human brain when a new technology becomes quite ubiquitous. His major assertion relates to the malleable brain; that the brain has a tremendous plasticity that allows it to be re-organized (re-wired, if you will). That, he points out, has consequences. Happily, though, he also underscores that, "That doesn't mean that we can't, with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we've lost" (35).
Carr is concerned about the distraction of our minds. "The constant distractedness that the Net encourages [...] is very different from the kind of temporary, purposeful diversion of our mind that refreshes our thinking when we're weighing a decision. The Net's cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively" (119). What is more, the Net disrupts our brain's long-term memory because we don't deal with information in our working memory; the Net encourages the use of short-term memory, meaning that most information doesn't arrive at the working memory center, let alone in our long-term memory.
Although I agree with him on the notion of the Net disrupting long-term memory and working memory, I don't think that we've got a lost cause on our hands. Instead, from an educator's point of view, I think we have an opportunity to harness the power of the Internet and bend it to our human will, if that makes sense. As adults, we may be a "crunch generation" in regards to technology (the Internet in particular): we're crunched because the Internet took us by storm, we are continuing to deal with it -- and be overwhelmed by it, and we're trying to figure out how to master it. Therein lies the opportunity. Can we take control of the medium, and re-orient it to allow us to continue to benefit from those higher-order thinking skills that characterize us as human beings? It is imperative that we do so. Otherwise, we may devolve into having "the mental life of a sea slug" (187).
Carr seems to recognize the same thing in his epilogue, where he points out the outstanding problem with computers (in general): they don't make judgments; they follow unyielding rules. They will miss a moment of brilliance because they lack human adaptability and reaction; instead, they would identify a moment of (potential) brilliance as a deviation from the formulas that make their programs run.
In other words, we need to be purposeful about our humanity, even though we co-exist with rapidly-changing technology that is altering our human experience.
To thine own self be true!