Friday, July 31, 2015

The Shallows--Again

There is an article in today's New York Times about "Struggling to Disconnect From Our Digital Lives." It starts from the following "premises":
Five years ago, I read a book called “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr. He was sounding an alarm. The more time we spend swimming in digital waters, Mr. Carr argued, the shallower our cognitive capacity becomes, and the less control we have over our attention.

At the time, I found these ideas intriguing. Five years later, I’m alarmed.

“The Net,” Carr writes, “is by design an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention. Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”

Or as the economist and Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon put it even more presciently in 1971, “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Who is at fault here? The "digital waters"? Really? It's not like there was no distraction before. If you are distracted it's your own fault, not the fault of the object(s) you are concerned with. And, yes, you have to be attentive to information, but it is simply false that "wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." It's the lack of control over your attention that creates undifferentiated shallowness.

5 comments:

Michael Leddy said...

I always wonder how it is that these folks are still able to write think-pieces, much less books.

Dracogeno said...

That the ultimate responsibility of the faulty attention lies with the reader, does not negate the effect of the media. E.g. the drug addict is responsible for his addiction, but that does not make the drug less addictive.

They are only saying that with digital media it's a lot more difficult to control one's attention, not that it cannot be done or that it excuses the absent-minded.

MK said...

One of the things I am objecting to is the analogy to drugs. The effects of the media are not usefully interpreted along the lines of addiction.

Furthermore, the author of this article does blame electronic media and thinks that reading is the solution. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, reading was thought to cause the same problem.

Dracogeno said...

I accept that the analogy to drug addiction is a little far-fetched, but I meant only to illustrate that the possibility of new media having a negative effect on attention is one question and the responsibility for letting attention lapse is other. They only meet when the distracted uses the media as an excuse.

On the other hand a continuous stream of information in real time makes more difficult to stop, consolidate and think. At least that's my case, because I fear losing the next, maybe relevant, piece of information.

In my opinion new ways of reading are not better or worse, but that they are different, and require different kinds of attention. People used to one of them may need time and effort when facing the other. And those people may find difficulties confronting situations that require only one of them, (as in academia or, on the other side, "social media" jobs).

MK said...

I tend to agree that reading books is no better or worse than reading electronic content. I also agree that different people have different problems, and that is the reading why I don't like the shallow generalization about the shallows.