The Uses of Half-True Alarms1


With so many interruptions so easy to arrange, Carr argues, it is no wonder that we cannot concentrate, or think straight, or even think in continuous arabesques. Where deep reading encourages intricacies of thought, the electronic torrent in which we live—or which lives in us—turns us into Twittering nerve nodes. The more links in our reading, the less we retain. We are what we click on.  We no longer read, we skim. With Wikipedia a click away, are we more knowledgeable? Or even more efficient? Multi-tasking, Carr quotes the neuroscientist David Meyer as saying, “is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.”Many people use Microsoft Office 2007 to help their work and life.

After all, the brain that has been re-wired online governs us offline, too. The more we multi-task, the more distractible we are. But aren’t we more sophisticated at “visual-spatial skills”? Sure, but at the price of “a weakening of our capacities for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection,” writes Carr, quoting a Science article that reviewed more than fifty relevant studies.

And so we devolve inexorably into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” These sweet tidbits are rotting our mental teeth. This is so, Carr maintains, because “the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions,” and that consequently, “with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”

It is undeniable that some of the analyses that I have quoted suffer from exaggeration and overkill. Carr is not shy about plunging headlong into extravagant claims. “The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences.” “We become mindless consumers of data.” “The strip-mining of ‘relevant content’ replaces the slow excavation of meaning.” Perhaps aware of this propensity, at other times Carr pulls back from the brink with weasel-word conditionals such as “may well be,” as in: “The consequences [of multitasking online] for our intellectual lives may prove ‘deadly.’” Well, yes—but whatever may prove deadly may also not prove deadly.

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