Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?

My family always spent a week in Lake Tahoe in the summer, usually in August. During these vacations, my oldest brother would occasionally become so absorbed in a book that he would sit completely still for hours simply reading, without moving, save for the sudden, violent arm convulsion that was required to turn the page. No bathroom breaks. No idle chitchat. No chips and dip. He was busy burrowing through a few hundred pages like a book mole, unwilling to stop until his bladder burst or someone threw him in the pool—or both. We called this marathon reading "nerd factor," as in, "he's got some good nerd factor going on."

And my dad would sometimes fall victim to this deep, almost hypnotic state of reading. After making Super Scrams for breakfast, he would leave the wreckage of the kitchen in his wake and idly pick up a James Michener tome as fat as my head. Invariably, he'd be "lost at sea" for the day, simply unable or unwilling to drop the thing with a thud and participate in vacation. It was like the idea of a bookmark had never even occurred to him, and the mere suggestion of one would elicit a look of sheer incomprehension or outright disgust. He would not stop reading until he reached the end, by George! End of story. As my mom would aptly put it, he had been "sucked in." There was no amount of begging or pleading to go to the pool, play a round of miniature golf, or invest in an outing of horseback riding that could get him to stop. "Nerd factor, warp speed ahead, Scotty!"

My daughters also have this "nerd factor" ability; they can sit for hours plowing through a book till it's history, thank you very much! Not me. I get distracted half way through that tiny slip of paper that comes out of a fortune cookie. I get bored while reading street signs. Truth be told, I've become a big advocate of haikus, bullet points and communicating through body language alone. What gives? (Keep reading! I'm getting to the point, you with the attention span of a Drosophila fly!)

One of my brothers mentioned something about this to me the other day. He's having trouble concentrating, finding a book he felt enthusiastic about finishing. That got me thinking: How has our fast-paced, Tivo-fueled, Internet-surfing world impacted our ability to enjoy a James Michener novel that Paul Bunyan could use as a footstool? Has the Internet spoiled our ability to enjoy a good book?

Then I ran across this fantastic article from The Atlantic magazine by Nicholas Carr entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" In it, Carr discusses the impact of Internet browsing/reading has had on our ability to engage in and enjoy deep reading. In essence, he posits that our flitting around the net all day gathering gossipy tidbits, sound bites, and snippets of news and infotainment has impacted our ability to "read." It's as if the Internet itself—with it's fast-paced, get-it-in-a-second nature—has reprogrammed our minds at a biological level, influencing the way we actually think and process information. It's cogent, trenchant, keenly written and, I swear, not too long. You should take the time to read it here. It'll leave you itching for a thick brick of Michener.

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