This is your brain on Twitter: attention, social media, and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows
After a summer of tweeting, playing Scrabble on Facebook, and writing posts on this blog, I've returned to teaching, and suddenly my attention seems like a vanishing natural resource. Several questions come to mind:
1) How much has Twitter led me away from writing?
2) Has the Internet trained me to skim?
3) Does Twitter succeed because it caters to a short attention span?
4) Does Internet surfing encourage people to watch videos instead of reading?
5) Does one's writing become more fragmentary and scattered due to the influence of social media?
6) How much does this scattering of concentration affect the reading of print media, specifically books?
On the one hand, I enjoy sharing my thoughts with an engaged audience, finding links that others may enjoy (playing the aggregator), learning more about film and the media, and participating in a lively interactive culture of bloggers, journalists, academics, experts, and so on.
On the other hand, I wonder about the Internet's effect on my concentration. I read (skimmed) Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains over the summer, and he decries the subtle ways in which the Internet changes how we think, particularly the way the mind reshapes itself to react to different media. He finds that all of the switching from link to link does affect our concentration negatively. Some quotes from his book:
"The Net seizes our attention to scatter it" (118).
"As the economist Tyler Cowen says, `When access [to information] is easy, we tend to favor the short, the sweet, and the bitty'" (94).
"Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle: that's the intellectual environment of the Internet" (126).
"frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and angry" (132).
"Nielson found that the vast majority [of Web users] skimmed the text quickly, their eyes skipping down the page in a pattern that resembled, roughly, the letter F" (134).
"most Web pages are viewed for ten seconds or less" (135).
"it's in Google's economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction" (157).
Lastly, Carr quotes from David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon college: "`Learning how to think' really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." Otherwise, one is left with "the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing" (194-95).
Perhaps due to Carr's influence, I have never been more conscious of the limitations of my attention and the need to carefully select what I might concentrate on.
Anderson's "In Defense of Distraction"
Richtel's "Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime"