Mark Shead’s recent post “7 Ways To Upgrade Your Brain” makes some helpful points on reading, writing and thinking. I always enjoy the stimulus of reading how others view these vital activities. Now I’d better get down to a bit more thinking.
I’ve just finished reading a couple of articles that deserve wider exposure. Bryan Appleyard wrote in The Times on 20 July 2008 “Stoooopid … why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thing: The digital age is destroying us by ruining our ability to concentrate.” Nicholas Carr wrote an article earlier in The Atlantic Monthly for July/August 2008 entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains.”
Like both writers I’ve found myself less able to read deeply in a sustained manner over the past few years. And like them, I would attribute this to the effects of the Web.
Two weeks without Internet access on holiday threw me back to reading from dead trees almost exclusively. Only almost exclusively because I brought my laptop with me. Extremely limited television viewing for the past month has also reinforced my use of print. I think I’ve read more thoughtfully, even though I still read at a fast pace of knots. (During the fortnight, I managed to read Dorothy Sayer’s novel The Nine Tailors, Sinclair Ferguson’s The Pundit’s Folly, David Wells’s The Courage to be Protestant, and Ravi Zacharias’s The Grand Weaver. Some reflections may follow.)
Over the past year or so I’ve increasingly printed out Internet articles I wanted to read, initially because of deteriorating myopia, but now more because I can interact with them the better. I usually scribble objections, agreements and thoughts, tangential or otherwise, in the narrow margins, continuing onto discarded sheets previously printed, but still containing valuable white space. I might scream at the screen, but would rarely put pencil to paper unless I am reading from paper. Somehow the screen encourages only screams, but the catharsis of writing reflections on my reading seems altogether more satisfactory, and much easier when you have the printed paper before you.
And the very act of writing also helps clarify my thinking (though much muddle undoubtedly remains). Even if my scribblings lie in my ever ascending Tower of Babel, I seem to retain much more of their logic and reason than when I just skim on-screen. Our modern day fountain of knowledge seems like it has devastating consequences like the ancient tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Instead of a clarity of thought, there is a great muddle of unconnected and rapidly fading factoids.
It is gravely concerning to see British government blithely pursuing an educational policy of seeking to provide ever more computer and Internet access to cure falling educational attainment targets (as reported on a recent BBC news broadcast). It seems like trying to cure an inveterate gambler’s addiction by providing free chips for his local casino. But then, education is following health policy — provide free methadone for heroin addicts. That will surely cure their drug problems.
Once we get online voting for local and national elections, Parliament and local councils will be little more than Big Brother where we eject the party of housemates we no longer favour.
Are we fast approaching the point where the undoubted benefits of the Internet for serious research will be outweighed by its debilitating side-effects? Or have we passed the point of no return already? Are we simply Googling ourselves to death?
Update (18 Aug 2008): I see from Scott Karp (How Newsrooms Throw Away Value By Not Linking To Sources On The Web) that Nicholas Carr has listed his sources for his article in detail on his blog.
Neil Postman proposed three commandments that described the philosophy of education by television, the first of which was “Thou shalt have no prerequisites” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 147). Each programme is a self-contained unit which does away with “the idea of sequence and continuity in education” thus undermining “the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself” (p. 147).
Sadly this philosophy now has invaded the academy. An increasing number of students I reach (at a university which shall remain unnamed) are permitted to take courses, even at an elementary level, for which they are wholly unprepared. They have little idea of hos to write connected English, particularly those whose natural language it supposedly is. They have less of an idea of how to think; unsubstantiated assertions apparently clinch any argument. Little wonder if their diet for the past 20 plus years has been largely the compartmentalised, disconnected, uncontextualised pseudo-education of television.
Dangerous and worrying as such a situation is, for the Christian church the dangers are alarming. This idea has permeated virtually the whole of society, including the minds of many professing Christians. Have Sunday worship experiences become little more than self-contained happenings with little or no relevance to the rest of the week, or the rest of life? Do we expect to understand instantly what we read in Scripture? Do we despise theology because it requires sequence, and sheer hard graft? Is this why 60-second this, instant that, and secrets of the other are the staple diet of those Christians who still read (apart from the obvious endless revenue-generating possibilities for publishing houses)?