Take a while to reflect away from the constant bombardment of digital information that flows into and out of our lives every day. Time to change down a gear, intellectually speaking, to something that requires more than a minute or so to read. So much of our online media is dedicated to things that can be done in a minute. According to rankings by Alexa.com, the 10 most popular websites globally are (in order): Yahoo!, Google, YouTube, Windows Live, Microsoft Network, MySpace, Wikipedia, Facebook, Blogger and Orkut. Ten powerful engines for furiously finding, creating, publishing and spinning around the lightweight ideas, images, videos, stories, social chit-chat and trivial bric-a-brac of our digital lives.
I invite you to take time out from the digital noise and read Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google making us stupid?” in The Atlantic magazine — a 15-minute read in print and also available online. Carr wonders if instant access to a stream of just-in-time knowledge bytes is making us lazy readers and therefore lazy and shallow thinkers.
He claims that our brains are becoming less able to concentrate on reading long text pieces, soon becoming bored and hunting for the next link, the next idea. His comment, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet-ski”, paints a visual picture many of us can identify with.
But isn’t it amazing what can be discovered by some energetic swimming around, digital snorkeling if you will. I, for one, often marvel at the excitement of discovering new ideas and connections using the internet — the digital equivalent in a few moments of a day spent in a library.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr observed in 1858, “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.” It’s a buzz to seek out things that stretch the mind.
There is, by the way, an interesting link between Carr’s Google article and this famous quote. Holmes’ wisdom was also published in The Atlantic Monthly magazine — though almost exactly 150 years ago, as part of a series of monographs subsequently compiled into a book titled The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.
In 1858 philosophers enthused at the way a new idea could expand one’s intellectual horizons. By 2008 there are so many new ideas, so easily found, that our minds are overstretched and overwhelmed by them!
Here’s a question to ponder. Is the consuming of fast facts from the internet without intellectual effort messing with our heads, in the same way that consuming fast food without having to cook it is messing with our waistlines?
Obesity is a real health issue. Many of us appear to have lost a sense of practical wisdom about biological and nutritional realities. Surplus energy intake is stored as fat. Some foods are better than others, indeed some will insidiously shorten your life. Walk when you can. Take the stairs, not the lift — it may not be necessary, but it is good for you.
Are we now starting to see the need to develop practical wisdom regarding the impact of the internet on our brains? Too many RSS feeds just clog up your thinking.
Some sources and stories are better than others, indeed some will insidiously warp your personality. Popular does not necessarily mean factual, good or right. Exercise your critical faculties — it may not be necessary, but it builds wisdom.
Yet, how are our minds stretched by the internet? Deeply or in a shallow manner? Are we clogging our minds with shallow ephemera and social networking, while we upload our deep knowledge to the internet and with it our practical, dirt under the fingernails wisdom?
University lecturers frequently comment with dismay about the digital generation’s scant disregard for deep learning. Why bother memorising when you can just Google knowledge when you need it?
Are we now happy with shallow brains — knowing that we can go deep on demand, by plugging ourselves into the cloud?
In their book The Attention Economy, Tom Davenport and John Beck popularised the notion that we now live in an age of information overload, where our most scarce resource is our ability to pay attention — to focus, concentrate and think — rather than just consume and interact with information.
Knowing what you should pay attention to is the essence of judgment and wisdom in both our physical and digital lives. Perhaps ‘diving deep’ into the colder waters of offline knowledge, savoured on paper, memorised and discussed with face-to-face people, is good for the brain in the same way that good food and regular exercise are good for our bodies.
Dr Steve Hodgkinson is research director, public sector for Ovum in Melbourne.
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