Rediscovering the Depths


A book I read recently confirmed for me a growing hunch: that all the information the internet puts instantly at our disposal is making us stupider. All those arcane things it once took a sleuth or a scholar or an archaeologists to scare up – the whereabouts of some long-faded starlet, the distance from one edge of the Andromeda galaxy to the other, the ancient alchemist's potion for transmuting base metal to gold, or whatever – is just a key-stroke away. Google is the new Oracle of Delphi, at none of the cost. Wikipedia is our generation's guru on the mountaintop, only you can get there and back in the time it takes to sip your coffee.

The internet makes us all know-it-alls. Instant experts. It is an ocean of knowledge distilled at the tap of a mouse. No longer does one need to invest the slow labor of painstaking study. No longer must one accumulate a body of knowledge from books and lectures, from travels and long meandering conversations: you can conjure it all up as fast as you can think it up. Imagine a question, any question, and your search engine starts offering answers before you've even typed the whole thing in.

But there's a downside. An obvious one is that we now know many things but none of them well. All the deep and intricate connective tissue between bits of knowledge is missing. Our heads become as dishevelled as the drawer you have in your kitchen, cluttered with everything from cake candles to glue sticks to keys for cars you no longer own, to that pair of 3-D glasses you forgot to throw in the bin as you exited the theatre. There's no organizing principle to any of it, no coherence. It's random.

But it's worse than that. The internet is playing havoc with our brains. It is altering the way we think.

It's messing with our heads.

Oh, the book – I almost forgot. It's called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Carr documents at great length recent studies in neurology – the science of how the brain works – that show conclusively that prolonged exposure to the internet erodes our capacity for what he calls deep thinking. In a word, we lose the point. We distract easily. We have little patience or ability to follow an argument much past its first turn. The internet is making us more alert but less attentive. We're becoming like skittish hares or does, quick to pick up on every last little thing, every noise and motion, but slow to stare long and hard at any one thing. And we forget information as fast we gather it.

Reading Carr's books, his descriptions of our jittery addiction to the cyberworld and our diminishing capacity to actually read and talk, was like looking in the mirror. That's me, I kept thinking.

And then I'd check my email.

I read the book a month ago, when I first landed here in Wales. When I read it, I was a case in point: it was hard for me to stick with Carr's complex argument, to wade through his long chapters, to sift through his reams of data. But after a month in a secluded valley, and reading more than a dozen books in that time, and with a testy and pokey internet connection that has seriously curbed my appetite for being online, there is growing room inside my head, and growing order.

One of the distinctions Carr makes repeatedly is between attentiveness and alertness. Alertness is a heightened state of distraction: everything pulls us. Attentiveness is a deepened state of focus: one thing holds us.

God gave us the capacity for both, and both have their uses. But worship and the pursuit of holiness calls for the latter. These things require sustained attentiveness. They demand a long obedience in the same direction.

That's worth turning the internet off for.

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