Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that… My mind [is] changing. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy…. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages… The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer… But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media… supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought… My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.
I have experienced something very similar to what Carr describes. But ever since I started meditating and studying Tai Chi Chuan I noticed that I have re-gained much of my capacity to concentrate for long hours, and what’s more, my overall appetite for information consumption has shrinked. This had a big impact on my websurfing habits.
Nowadays I am much less likely to get stuck for hours roaming in cyberspace. I read a much lower number of blog posts and articles on a given session, and the ones that I do read are much more likely to hold my attention from beginning to end.
This attitude blends well with my recently-implemented, Evernote-based GTD system. Whenever I come across an interesting headline, I clip the entire page to my Inbox with the click of a button, where it will sit until I have the time and mindset to process it. Only then I will decide whether it merits a full read.
Somehow meditation has helped me to strike a much better balance between a confidence in what I already know, and what I feel I need to know.
I wonder whether there is a broader principle at work here. While much of the Internet is designed in a way that is conducive to scattered patterns of attention, in my view this is both a cause and a consequence of the frenetic overall lifestyles prevalent in modern societies. As Carr points out, the more frenetic our websurfing, the more dispersed our attention will become in other areas of life.
But I also feel that the more we modify our offline lives through meditation, long weekends in the beach or mountain, shorter working hours, and simply doing less stuff overall–and the more aligned our society is with these lifestyles–our websurfing habits will change accordingly: We will spend more time at Project Guttemberg, read a lower number of pots per session, finish reading the posts we have started, and favor bloggers who write longer posts.
It may be true that media has the power to influence our cognitive processes down to the biological level. But there are strong grounds to believe that our lifestyles and societies do so too.
Google’s creepy ideology
What I found most revealing about Carr’s article is his observation of Google’s ideology as a crass form of information-age Taylorism:
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google… speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back… In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.”
Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ…
Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.
This is the sort of intellectual hubris that pervades so many science-based industries. As I have argued before, it is the same ideology that led Wall Street to believe in mathematical models that yielded triple-A ratings for bizarrely complex financial instruments they didn’t truly understand.
If the power of money corrupts people by stoking their instinct for greed, scientism corrupts them by excessively inflating their drive for understanding, predicting, and ultimately controlling the environment, society and other human beings.
As a Taoist, I find the idea of trying to do away with ambiguity particularly disturbing — there seems to be not much of a place for Ying-Yang paradoxes in Google’s view of intelligence.
Carr is afraid this ideology might lead to a world similar to that of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odissey.
And I thought Google would prevent Microsoft from taking us there. Sigh.