Gone Fishin’

July 23, 2008 at 12:30 pm Leave a comment

<– Not me!

<– Not my dog!

I am on vacation. I understand that a lot of people who have time off from work actually, you know, go away or something. At the very least, I believe they turn their computers off. Proudly contrarian, I will do neither. Instead, I will take some time to start a blog (mission accomplished!). Next up: catching up on my reading. Which IS going to require me to turn my computer off. And maybe also reprogram my brain, while I’m at it.

I read a great article in The Atlantic last month, about how Google is making us ‘stoopid.’ So stupid, that I worried the editor really did miss a typo, and wasn’t being punny. But no, The Atlantic–along with The New Yorker–appear to have retained both a sense of irony as well as remaining a last bastion for the literate. But I digress.

The article was about how reading (and writing) online is actually changing our brain’s ability to process words and concepts. We no longer have the concentration levels to read more than is–ahem–contained in a typical blog post. Online writing is shorter, at the least. Partial sentences are not only tolerated, they are required. This is not an intentional leaning to be more Hemingway, less Faulkner; it is about the way our brains can actually process the written word as presented in an electronic medium.

Alas, online writing also contains short forms, acronyms and “chat speak” that have come into being because of the technological and time constraints of the typical online writer, and the reading comprehension style and ability of the typical online reader. These tend to mask non sequiturs, faulty conclusions, poor logic and a general lack of stylistic integrity (not to mention quality). That is, if there is any ‘content’ in the online content, which–sadly–there often isn’t.

In prior days, some of us may have caught these faulty concepts and taken the time to think about them, allowing us to fully process our own responses to the writing, as well as potentially engage with the writer (or other readers) in a discussion about the topic. In other words, we would be reading and processing deeply, also known as thinking.

But today, we not only forgive these errors in thought that underlie the errors in style, but we are lucky if we even notice them. When reading online, our brains have been trained to skim for essential points of meaning. We skip over the OMGs, srsly’s and 🙂 that pass for dialogue and miss out on the thoughts and concepts that may be contained in a blog or message board post.

And that is the best-case scenario. Even those of us who rage against the general disintegration of quality in thought and writing that is now commonplace–those of us, in other words, who can recognize when things are just bloody wrong–are not immune to the inevitable decline in cognitive abilities that occurs when one turns to the Internet as the preferred media for communication, information, news and entertainment. We are using so much of our energy slogging through the flotsam and jetsam of online communications to find the hidden pearls of content that we haven’t got much left to engage in critical analysis. Like a great white shark who endlessly swims-swims-swims in search of prey, we are occasionally rewarded. But oh my, that endless swimming is exhausting.

As Nicolas Carr states: “My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Me too, Nicholas, me too. I realized it while reading (in hard copy, not online) your 4,218-word article. And I also realized it when skimming over Entertainment Weekly‘s Top 100 Books Of The Last 25 Years. While I have read many titles on the list, I haven’t purchased a book in about two years with the exception of number one on the list, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Interestingly, the friend who recommended it included the comment “it’s a fast read” among her accolades. And yes, I managed to get through it in a five-hour sitting. Otherwise, it would–like the 20 or so other books sitting on my nightstand–be lying face down, spreadeagled at p. 25 or so, for months and months and months.

So … I’m off to the bookstore. And I shall not return to this blog without having both read a book all the way through, as well as being prepared to discuss it in a post here. A long one, no doubt.


Entry filed under: Books. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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