Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Wordcraft -- Is it still reading if it's on the internet?

Nicholas Carr had trouble adjusting his microphone during Saturday’s appearance at the Dallas Arboretum. “I often have a problem with technology when I speak because the technology doesn’t like me,” he said.

The audience laughed because Carr has written about technology since the 1990s. And because his recent book -- Pulitzer Prize finalist The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains -- describes in eerie detail how the use of technology trains its users. Particularly, how the internet molds users, through methods reminiscent of a rehabilitation camp, into its own image.

The discussion’s host was the Points Summer Book Club of the Dallas Morning News. A book club conducted online. The irony was not lost on Carr.

He’s the first to admit that he had a long term love affair with computers as a nonfiction writer who finds research much easier and faster with the internet. And then, in 2007, he said, “I seemed to lose my ability to concentrate, to make my mind stay focused on one

At first, he told the audience, most of them fellow members of the boomer generation, he attributed his problem to “middle age mind rot.” But he found that “it felt as if my mind wanted to behave the way it behaves when I was online. My brain seemed to not want to behave in that attentive way.”

That was troubling enough to lead him down two lines of research. One led him to the structure of the brain. The other research avenue led to the past, “to see if there were other examples of tools that changed the way people thought -- examples of what I called intellectual technology.”

Who knew until Carr told them, that technology as simple as maps and mechanical clocks would alter the anatomical structure of our brains, opening doors to new ways of thinking while closing doors on our previous mental landscapes. Alternations in structure validated by research dating back to the late 1960’s on the evidence of neuroplasticity of primate brains.

As Carr relates in The Shallows, “It’s 1968. . . 2001 is having its first theatrical run, leaving moviegoers befuddled, bemused or just plain annoyed. And in a quiet laboratory
at the University of Wisconsin, Michael Merzenich is cutting a hole in a monkey’s skull.”

What neuroscientist Merzenich found was that, in response to his experiments, the monkeys’ brains reorganized themselves to a degree formerly believed impossible once an animal or a human being reached adulthood.

In a similar manner, Carr believes today’s degree of immersion in the internet and the  repetitive activities it generates can cause the reorganization of its human users' brains. A reorganization at the expense of the deep attentiveness that has characterized innovative human thought since the advent of mass printing more than five hundred years ago. 

There is hope for our minds amid the total immersion of the internet in which our culture swims, he said, but it will require increased mindfulness of the effects, especially the unintended effects of technology.

“While researching and writing The Shallows, I sometimes felt as though I were paddling a very small and very empty rowboat against a very strong tide. That impression, I was happy to discover when the first edition of the book appeared in early 2010, was mistaken. The boat may have been small, but I was not the only one manning the oars. . . There’s still plenty of room inside. Feel free to grab an oar.”


Ann Weisgarber, author of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, will be the featured writer at the fifth annual Do the Write Thing writing workshop at Tarrant County College’s Northeast Campus this Saturday, August 13. The college is located at 828 W. Harwood in Hurst. Online registration is available for previously-registered students of Tarrant County College. Others may bring the form to the workshop or fax it to 817-515-0683, attn Brenna. Conference sponsor Brenna Saunders of TCC- Northeast Campus-Continuing Education must receive the form before Saturday for a reduced cost of $50 to apply. On site registration is available Saturday for $75. Download registration form and a list of speakers and workshop at or call 972-533-3543.


Bedford Library Friends announce their annual short story contest through September 3.  See for details.


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