I speak as someone intimately experienced with addictive drugs: two years ago, I quit smoking. To this day, I find myself smoking in dreams, and occasionally sneak them from friends at the bar. The rest of the time, the Internet serves as a proxy.
Addictive personalities often replace one addiction with another. My new worst friend is the social web, the endless stream of information constantly streaming down Senator Ted Stevens’ infamous “series of tubes.” Here’s a short list of Internet services that I use and check with half-hourly frequency: email, Facebook, Tumblr, Delicious, Evernote, Twitter, Remember the Milk, Google Reader (tracking some 180 RSS feeds), and Yahoo News. I back up longer articles using Instapaper to read on the bus; at the office, I work with two web browsers open at all times, 10 individual tabs loaded in each, spread over two monitors. On the commute home, I’m checking text messages via my Internet-enabled phone and reading archived blog posts on my iPod. At times, it seems like a type of digital schizophrenia, or if nothing else, a hell of a drug.
I’m what pencil-necked social media experts and Web 2.0 carpetbaggers would call a “power user.” I dine on a constant, movable feast of information. Scolds might suggest that this is a symptom of a larger Internet addiction, but when your day job involves managing web content and your night jobs are web design and freelance writing, it’s impossible to avoid spending 12 to 14 hours a day online. My habits are far from unusual; as we sit in offices for eight hours at a desktop computer, only to leave the office with iPhones, Blackberries and Kindles in tow, it’s clear that the moment futurists have predicted is upon us: the Internet has become pervasive, and it’s only going to become more so in the years to come.
With so much information streaming at once, most of it with all the panache of a poorly-organized corporate database vying for attention with hard news and gossip masquerading as political analysis, there’s little room for critical engagement; there’s barely enough time for basic reading comprehension. I could read 50 news articles in a day about the Middle East and return with no deeper understanding of what happened in Iraq on that given day. My mind has become a decontextualized database of ephemeral facts, equipped with only the most rudimentary of search functions. It’s not exactly cheering to realize that I’m not alone.
It’s a phenomenon that author John Lorinc bemoaned in his 2007 essay “Driven to Distraction” for the Canadian magazine Walrus. “We have created a technological miasma that inundates us with an inexhaustible supply of electronic distractions,” Lorinc wrote. “The deluge of multi-channel signals has produced an array of concentration-related problems, including lost productivity, cognitive overload and a wearying diminishment in our ability to retain the very information we consume with such voraciousness. It may be that our hyper-connected world has quite simply made it difficult for us to think.”
Lorinc’s far from alone in his alarm. In the past year, a cottage industry has sprouted up around the warning that Google—and the Internet at large—is making us stupid. The most infamous of the bunch has been Nicholas Carr’s cover story for the August 2008 issue of the Atlantic. Citing the work of Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, who warns that online readers become “mere decoders of information,” Carr editorializes that “our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains disengaged.” I’m dubious of the argument that Google is making us stupid, but Carr makes a key observation in the piece, writing that “deep reading . . . is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”
Feeling disenfranchised from that sort of deeper engagement, my resolution for this year was to step away from the stream—at least for an hour a day—and return to trusty old print. I decided to read more books—not on a Kindle or the e-Book reader on an iPhone, where the temptation for distraction via a rudimentary browser is a mere hand gesture away—but in bound, linear, paper form. It’s been a revelation. I’ve rediscovered an ethic of attentiveness, an intellectual silence and focus, that I lost in recent years as I jumped from one link to another, juggling countless browser tabs at all times. My process of reading had ceased being linear and had morphed into a cacophony of facts, data, opinions and animated Flash video. Since I’ve rediscovered slow reading, I find myself thinking more clearly, perusing linear paths of critical engagement with topics. It’s a relieving contrast to the multitasked intellectual inattentiveness that the online world encourages and demands.
One of the things I’ve been re-reading is the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, an author many consider a prophet of the discursive, hypertext era of the Internet. Borges’ work—elliptical, playful and rife with allusions—is stunningly contemporary in its meta-narrative and referential play. Yet even a writer as prescient as Borges demands the engagement of slow reading: those elliptical routes are far more rewarding when confined to the particular context of the linear narrative. His work demands a depth of engagement that cannot be replicated by reading his work on a web browser, just one in 10 tabs of content in a web browser, with billions of other off-topic distractions a mere Google search away.
Yet even for a print-native reader like myself, rediscovering the pleasures of slow reading and returning to the printed page is a struggle. Given an hour of free reading time, habit will compel me to the LCD screen rather than a book. I must make a concerted effort to sit down on the couch, book in hand. Once I open the book, keeping focused on that single linear feed of information is a constant challenge: I find myself twitchy, distracted, desperately in need of a reading discipline that I unlearned at some point in the past decade as my attention turned to online media. It’s as if I have not only forgotten an important mode of critical thinking, but basic reading comprehension. The state of concentration required to truly engage with the printed word can be attained, and is indeed rewarding, but it requires one hell of a concerted effort in this day and age.
Pundits like Jeff Jarvis, who collect healthy speaking fees by telling aspirational bloggers and new media entrepreneurs what they want to hear, might scoff at an appreciation of slow reading as being the rear-guard defense mechanism of a cultural dinosaur. They’d be half right. For all of slow reading’s continued rewards, it doesn’t take an oracle to acknowledge that print is doomed to a future as a niche product that will command a premium from a small group of enthusiasts, not unlike vinyl or free-range meat. Which is a damned shame, in a certain sense. Clearly the human mind benefits from a type of close, engaged reading that print encourages. And while there are a handful of services that attempt to replicate that experience on a screen, to varying degrees of success—Amazon’s Kindle, the web content archiving service Instapaper that accompanies me on the bus—the temptation of distraction is always near. Faced with that inevitability, something needs to change: either the way we consume content on screens or the way our brains process information. Futurist Ray Kurzweil argues that it may be our brains.
The Adaptive Brain
Speaking recently on New York Public Radio’s “On The Media,” Kurtzweil suggested that the human mind will evolve to synthesize this new form of information gathering. “Over time, the non-biological portion of our intelligence will predominate, and that’s basically what we mean by the singularity,” he said. “When you get out to 2045, we’ll have multiplied the overall intelligence of the human/machine civilization a billionfold, and that’s such a profound transformation that we call it a singularity.” Kurtzweil considers the wired brain as an inevitable—and advantageous—next evolutionary step for the human race, one that is consistent with the development of our minds over time. “There is something unique about humans in that we’re the only species that we know about that actually extends our reach with our tools, ever since we picked up a stick to reach a higher branch,” he explained. “We’re already a human/machine civilization. Our tools are part of who we are. They always have been. And that’s what unique about human beings.”
Kurtzweil’s predictions have a good rate of accuracy, and I imagine he’s right. But even the over-clocked evolution of the mind that he speaks of is a slow process, and neither the Internet nor the brains we currently have are doing the trick. No matter how many lauded new web tools I use to pull disparate information together, there is nothing that can effectively organize and synthesize the sheer wealth of information, leaving me with discrete pieces of data in an endless stream of facts, statistics, news and trivia. This information may reside on our hard drives or in the cloud, but only nominal amounts of it reside in our brain. And until the mind takes that evolutionary leap Kurtzweil speaks of—or we begin injecting Google nanobots in our minds to better tie together the brain’s rudimentary search engine—this new system of thought does little to help the process of analysis, of synthesis, of pulling pieces of information together to reach an informed conclusion.
Kurtzweil’s singularity may be decades away, but I suspect that this change has slowly begun, if not through evolution or nanobots, then through a change in practice. Even after rediscovering the value of slow reading, falling in love with print all over again, I find myself drawn by the allure of the screen. At times, slow reading seems almost too slow, and that intellectual quiet unbearable. My mind craves that discursive frenzy—maybe, like any other hard drug, the Internet has rewired my brain.
Perhaps we’re missing the point harping upon some arbitrary distinction between how we read in print and how we read online. No matter the media, we need to rediscover the discipline of slow reading that has been lost in the frenzy of never-ending RSS feeds and social network life streams. No matter how we’re engaging with information—in print or on screen, in a web browser or on a phone—it is, as it’s always been, essential for us to read slowly, be engaged with what we read, to constantly challenge ourselves to re-learn how to think, to be critically engaged. That never-ending data stream isn’t going anywhere, and the fact is, we may need its addictive distraction more than it needs our attention.