Neurons that fire together wire together: a review of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

19/10/2011

Nicholas Carr believes that the internet is rotting our brains. Do we believe him, and should we be worried?

Carr is not arguing against all technology. His point is that there is something specific about the Internet that is changing the way we think, and that this is to the detriment of our humanity.  It comes from a toxic mix of writing, multi-tasking and neurons.

The internet is a type of intellectual technology, a set of tools that extends the power of the mind and includes the map, the clock and the written word. We can compare this with technologies that expand the our physical power or dexterity (the plough, the needle and the fighter jet); or that extend the senses (microscope, amplifier), or that reshape nature (birth control pill, GM seeds).

Writing

The advent of the written word changed the way we related to knowledge. We learn to remember rather than to know:

The written word is “a recipe not for memory but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom … but only its semblance@ (p. 54, quoting from Plato’s Phaedrus)

It was fascinating to learn that spaces between words seem to be a relatively recent development. I don’t agree that it means writing before the middle ages had no literary craft because scribes simply transcribed what they heard:

The scribes didn’t pay much attention to the order of the words in a sentence either … In interpreting the writing in books through the early Middle Ages, readers would not have been able to use word order as a signal of meaning. The rules hadn’t been invented yet (61).

It seems to me that classical Hebrew and Greek were sufficiently literary that word order is relevant to meaning.

Nevertheless, writing opened the door to ‘deep reading’, immersion in a text that follows from giving it concentrated attention. The new technologies threaten to slam that door shut.

When a printed book … is transferred to a device connected to the internet, it turns into something very like a Web site. Its words become wrapped in all the distractions of the networked computer (104)

Multitasking

The problem with the Net is that it provides us with so many simultaneous stimuli that we lose the ability to concentrate on one thing only.

The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it (90)

and

The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious though, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively (119)

and again

improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively (140)

As we get better at such shallow thinking, we lose the ability to think deeply. It changes the way our brains are wired.

Neurons

We read web pages in a different way to printed text. Web pages promote cursory, hurried and distracted reading. The more we use the internet, the more we learn to read in this way. We are like lab rats, says Carr:

The Net also provides a high speed system for delivering responses and rewards … it turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment (117).

I think that is a bit strong. Yet I agree that the cycle of reinforcement means that we are training our brains to read more in this way, and therefore less in the concentrated way of ‘deep reading. The biology of it is that when the brain learns to do something, the neuron pathways involved become stronger: ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. Learning new skills rewires the brain in new ways. These new skills and their consequent neural pathways come at the expense of old skills and old pathways:

Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out time we spend reading books, as the time we send exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs … the circuits that support these old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old one.  (12o)

Patricia Greenfield agrees when she says ‘every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others’ (quoted by Carr 141); Marshall McLuhan wrote that our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of our body they ‘amplify’ (210)

Implications

Three of Carr’s implication are striking

  1.  The loss of the reading class. Carr says that the practice of deep reading will continue to face, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite. We will, in other words, revert to the historical norm: ‘we are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class’. The problem is that the reading class no longer coincides with the social and economic elite.
  2. If we lose the ability to think deeply, we will lose the ability to think morally: “For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection’ (221). If the social and economic decision-makers are not readers, they will not make thoughtful decisions.
  3. All of this is detrimental to our humanity. ‘The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation … the tools of the mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities – those for reason, perception, memory, emotion. (211).

Have you taken a break from the computer today? Do you take longer breaks, eg computer free holiday (digital detox)? And what habits are you allowing your digital-native children to grow?


Must Pastors be the future of publishing?

16/09/2011

Christian publishers already write for Pastors. A friend who is involved in publishing observed that in the US, pastors are the main market for books. Unless we take evasive action, Christian publishers may find that they only publish for Pastors. Here’s why:

The reading public is shrinking While we read many more words on the web and on our phones, we are reading fewer books. Nicholas Carr argues persuasively, I think, in The Shallows that our immersion in the Web trains us away from the deep reading needed to access serious thought via books (or indeed by any medium). The more we Web, the less we read. The less we read, the less we buy. The market for books is shrinking.

Pastors read more Christian books than non-pastors. (This is anecdotal). That way we know what books we can recommend to others. Of course if lots of non-pastors follow our recommendations, we don’t read more than others!

The future of real reading rests with those who can practice deep reading We browse web pages but we don’t really read them. The future of books as long arguments rests with those who will read them and understand them and engage with them. That requires what Carr calls Deep Reading. And that in turns requires the freedom to remove oneself from the distractions and stimulations of the internet and associated technologies.

The internet hampers deep reading and deep thought. This is the burden of Carr’s argument (see my previous post).

Pastors should know this, and should therefore shape their lives to allow deep thought and deep reading. It’s one of the battles we constantly fight, the struggle for time to read, to think, to meditate. Moral decision making needs space.

Pastors are often more able than others to shape their working lives. We complain about the pressures on our ministries, bu the fact is that we have control over what we do to an extent that many others do not: the person working at a checkout cannot reshape their day to avoid the beeps; the office worker cannot take several hours’ break from a screen; the sales executive cannot take a sabbatical from the phone.

As the effect of the internet grows, the reading and thinking class will shrink. And if we’re not careful it will shrink until it only contains pastors and those few others who can shape their day to retain deep reading and thinking. Which means that Pastors are the future of book publishing.

How can we avoid this?


Digital Divinity (4)

10/07/2011

More thoughts on godly living in a technological age…

Distraction and the Death of Deep Thinking

Here is a great paragraph on that icon of the digital explosion, the beep.

The beep is undiscerning and thoughtless. It calls us out of sleep and reverie, out of church and school; it demands our attention as we stand vigil at the deathbed of a loved one. Every beep exacts a cost, whether the cost is simply the brief moment of distraction as our attention turns to the source of the noise, or the necessity of running from imminent danger. These beeps fill our lives. Often, they run our lives. (115)

The tyranny of the beep makes sustained reflection increasingly difficult:

Our desire for speed and productivity has made it nearly impossible to dedicate time to thought and meditation. Instead, we find that we succumb to shallow thinking. Such shallow thinking becomes increasingly hard to combat when we become people who multitask and seek to learn, not by reading, but by skimming. (124)

Models of truth

The internet gives us unparalleled access to information. But we must not confuse that with knowledge: many pieces of information maybe claim to be true, but we need some way to know what is true (or more true). The internet has changed the way we think as a society about truth. Search engines give authority to those claims that are either relevant (most people seem to have linked to them), or have consensus (most people think this is right). Wikipedia, for instance, has completely overtake the Encyclopaedia Britannica as the first port of call for knowledge: but its authority comes from the consensus of a community, not from the authority if knowledge. We should be careful before we trust this as a ‘reliable’ source, and yet many appear to accept it uncritically. This should be of concern for any citizen, but especially for the Christian:

As our words must be true and pure, so must be our knowledge. Truth in all its forms honors God; error in all its forms dishonors him. And this suggests that we need to be very careful about how we choose the sources of our knowledge, about the way we seek to discern what is true and what is false, about how we determine who has the authority to declare what is true. (162)

Conclusion

Technology is not the issue: it is merely a tool in the hands of either the worshipper or the idolater. The digital explosion is a powerful tool, whose reach is unlike any we have seen before. It has changed our world, and it is changing us. It allows us to communicate in new ways; to be both hidden and public to an unprecedented degree; to hurt and to harm, to sin and to show love more than before. It brings both opportunity and danger – as is the case with any powerful technology.

As Christians, we will be wise to use this technology conscious that the greatest danger lies in our own hearts: it is because of sin that power can be used for good or for ill. The three pieces of advice that stick in my mind as most useful for godly living are to be visible, so that we have a clear conscience about what we do and say on the web; to be real, and not to rely on technology or the web to hide our true nature; and to be accountable, as we should be in any area where we have power over ourselves and over others.


Yet More on Digital Divinity: Media, Humanity, incarnation and Community

08/07/2011

Technology changes the world we live in, and changes us as we live in this changed environment. It is surprising how these changes strike at the heart of what it means to be human. Here are some further reflections arising from Tim Challies’ The Next Story.


Media, Humanity, incarnation and Community

We often use the term ‘media’ without thinking of its origin as something that comes between, as in a mediator. Theologically, it is because of our sin that we cannot relate directly to the Holy God of Israel. We therefore need a mediator to facilitate communication. The great news of the Gospel is that

Though sin has disrupted this contact, requiring a mediator between God and man, God promises that in the full and final redemption, in the new heaven and the new earth, we will once more experience him in the direct and unmediated way we were created for. This unmediated contact is seen in the promise of 1 Corinthians 13, that great chapter on the fulfillment of love, where Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Information technology and social media provide a mediated means of communication. We can communicate over greater distances (indeed David Wells recently observed that the internet eliminates distance). But when we communicate, it is with less of the person.

The ability to communicate further and overcome the limitation of distance has come at the price of real presence: “The voice extends and the person recedes.” (95)

It follows that as the communication comes to the fore, the body recedes:

Cyberspace gives us a place to be ourselves apart from our bodies.(101)

If we are not vigilant, we will allow this development to reduce our levels of intmiacy and community

Intimacy

We do well to be thankful for mediated communication and for its many benefits. Yet we do need to ensure that in all the ways we communicate we move toward true intimacy and avoid distancing ourselves from one another.

What I think this is saying is that an email is better than no communication: but that a phone call is more intimate than an email, and a meeting is more intimate still, because each case it is more embodied than the last.

Mediated presence is good, but face-to-face communication is better. If we are to be a community of Christian love, we must not neglect meeting together.(107)

We should be wary of the opportunity to be freed of the constraints of the body, because it forms an essential part of what it means to be human:

Freedom without the body, freedom without what makes us whole and complete human beings, is really no freedom at all.(102)

Community

The nature of community changes as the internet changes the way we relate to communities of people. We tend to form groups around interests rather than around locality, what we do rather than where we live.

As individuals we form our communities, and as individuals we leave them. And so we are networked as individuals who are more concerned with our own interests than those of others—the people in the communities we inhabit. (103)

The attraction of such communities is that there give us more control than, dare I say it, real-life communities

Mediated communication gives us greater control. Ultimately, many of the issues related to mediation come down to control. Much of what appeals to us in digital life is the illusion of control it gives us. Life online tends to be much less messy, much more predictable, than life in the world of flesh and blood. Digital technology offers us a life we can take or leave on our own terms and according to our own criteria. (112)

This should sound a warning to us: if we lack genuine community, our discipleship and growth will inevitably be stunted

The author of Hebrews tells us that if we are to stir up one another so that we become marked by mutual love and good deeds, we must continue to experience true fellowship face-to-face. The author knows nothing of mediated community, and he would tell us that even if it has benefits, it is never a substitute for the real thing. In fact, the very act of writing his letter proves his point. He tells the church that he would much rather be with them (face-to-face), but he cannot; therefore, a letter will have to suffice (13:18–19, 23). In his unfortunate but necessary absence, he is sending them his written words. (107)

How can we enjoy the benefits of communication without losing the intimacy of face to face contact?


More on Digital Divinity: Visibility, Secrecy and Morality

06/07/2011

Visibility, Secrecy and Morality

Life in the digital age is full of opportunities and dangers. Tim Challies’ The Next Story looks at wise living in a digital age. Here’s the first of my themes for reflection (they do not exactly follow his chapter divisions)

The heart and the tongue

The main impact of recent technology is in communication: we can now communicate in ways that were unthinkable before. But we communicate from the same heart and mind:

God’s Word teaches us a key principle that underlies our ability to communicate: The tongue is connected to the heart. The words that come out of a person’s mouth or are typed on his keypad and texted to a friend are an expression of what is in his heart. (78)

And

Shallow words reveal a shallow heart. (79)

Because of the power of the internet, our words’ power to harm or to heal can reach further than we could have imagined before. This introduces the paradox of the internet: that we are at once able to be more secretive and more more public than ever before.

Secrecy

Secrecy is a problem because when we feel ourselves to be beyond the gaze of our neighbours, moral restraint becomes much harder. Challies relates the 18th century seafarers’ saying that beyond Gibraltar, every man was a bachelor.

In those days, morality and accountability were closely tied to visibility. Most people, in an entire lifetime, would travel no further than the next town or village. They lived in close-knit communities where one person always knew what another was up to. …When visibility was lost, as with those men who sailed beyond Gibraltar, so too was accountability. And hard on its heels was morality. (68)

The analogy is a good one  because

Today, in our digital world, we spend much of our lives beyond Gibraltar, beyond accountability through visibility, able to say and do and look at and enjoy whatever our hearts desire. (68)

The path of wisdom is to resist the opportunity that secrecy gives to sin:

Be visible. If anonymity can be an enemy and a refuge, then visibility can work to keep us from slipping into sinful patterns of living and communicating. Simply by removing the anonymity of the web we can guard our hearts. When you find yourself pursuing anonymity, question your heart. You may well find that you are doing so for the worst of motives….

Be accountable. Do not live your online life apart from accountability and oversight. Let friends or family know what you are doing online; invite them into your digital world…. (others mention Covenant Eyes)

Be real. Don’t fabricate for yourself an identity online that is vastly different from your real-world identity. (86)

Publicity

At the same time as offering unparalleled opportunity for secrecy, the internet also provides great opportunity for visibility:

we need to understand that our lives are public in an unprecedented way and that through such visibility we may bring honor to God, or we may bring reproach to his name. (178)

Our lives are open to view in obvious ways when we tell ‘the web’ our innermost secrets. Our lives and our online decisions are also permanent because someone, somewhere has a record and could in time use it. For instance

Our searches are a penetrating window into our hearts. We tell search engines what we would not tell anyone else; we ask them what we would be far too embarrassed to ask in any other context.(186)

Who knows what is on your heart?


Digital Divinity?

04/07/2011

OK the title is cryptic. It’s about being godly after the digital revolution. It’s something we need to think about if we’re going to face the real world with Christian wisdom. And if we are going to love the Lord our God in every area of life, including in our use of technology.

Tim Challies is a writer, blogger and pastor whose concern is to help us think biblically about the impact of information technology on our spiritual living. His blog‘s strapline is ‘Informing the Reformed’ and his recent book ‘The Next Story‘ helps us think through goldy living in a digital age. His book is helpful on why technology is so powerful. I found four themes for reflection on my godly living.

I picked up two threads about the power of technology. (I have tried to use his words as much as possible)

Technology is not neutral.

Technology is a major aspect of modern living: we use it all the time, and often we take it for granted. But technology is not neutral. It changes our environment and it changes us.

A technology changes the entire environment it operates in. It changes the way we perceive the world (40).

If we are to glorify God with our lives, then we must include technology in our Christian reflection.

We cannot afford to be so shallow as to think that we can enthusiastically embrace a new technology without eventually suffering from at least some of its drawbacks. (61)

I was struck by four themes in his analysis. Here’s the first:

Creativity and Technology; God and Idols

Technology is an aspect of creativity:

Technology is the creative activity of using tools to shape God’s creation for practical purposes. … Whenever we express our God-given creativity by coming up with something that will help us be more fruitful, that will multiply and promote human flourishing in a way that honors God, we act out of the imago Dei, the “image of God” in which we were created (23).

It can become an idol in itself

Technology becomes an idol when we start to believe that humanity’s hope, humanity’s future, will be found in more and better technology. It becomes an idol when we place greater hope in technology than in God and when we measure human progress, not by the state of our hearts, but by new innovations in technology (30).

Although not necessarily wrong in itself, it may act to multiply sin when it serves to strengthen the power of sin, so that

Technology becomes a tool of our existing idols (31).

For example the power of pornography is not created by the internet, but its power is enhanced by the internet. The idolatry begins in the heart, not in the microchip. That power can also be used for good. If technology is a solution, the question we need to ask is, to what problem is this a solution, and whose was the problem?

Further, technology is also not neutral: it is ecological because changes the environment; it is biological because it changes us.

scientists are only now beginning to understand a further truth: technology is biological. Our brains actually change in response to new technologies. (44)

The fact is (or so scientists now tell us) that the way we think, and the way our brains work, is different to the way they did under the realm of print. One specific implication is that

It has placed many of us into what has been described as a state of continuous partial attention, a state in which we devote partial attention to many tasks simultaneously, most of them having to do with communication. (45)

What does this mean for faithful Christian living? I have grouped my reflections in four areas:

Visibility, Secrecy and Morality

Media, Humanity, incarnation and Community

Distraction and the Death of Deep Thinking

Models of truth

Of which more another time. What are your insights/surprises on the impact of digital technology on Christian living?



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