When did the Internet become poison?

So, this fellow named Nicholas Carr wrote a book called The Shallows. I have not read it (but I want to, I want to suggest anyone interested in the points below do so as well). I have read a review of it called “So Many Links, So Little Time” by John Horgan over at the Wall Street Journal, though (and I’d link it ‘cept it is the WSJ, and they are all “register or die” and I’m not even registered, I just had the article “guest linked” to me.) Anywho, so I read this review, and it is pretty easy to see what it is about: the Internet is turning our brains into mush!

It is an age old argument going as far back as Ralph Waldo Emerson, which both the book and review point out. When trains were getting big, Emerson said “Things are in the saddle / and ride mankind.” So apparently the monkey on our back now is the digital age. And I can see where the author (and the whatever-mongers) are coming from. As I write this, I have emailed, Facebooked, and shopped around for a Smartphone. I have yet to twitter or text, but that is probably forthcoming.

And the reviewer talks about how even his children feel the weight of the information age on them. His son confesses that he wants to cut down on his online time, but that he fears isolating himself from his friends. And you know what? I can sympathize with that. One reason I’m actually thinking of finally breaking down and getting a Smartphone is because I have to spend over an hour daily when I get home from work catching up on the Twitter, Facebook, and personal email activity of the day. And I also get to see conversations that started and ended that I would have liked to have been a part of but missed out on.

But, there are counter-points to this whole “too much information is giving us collective ADHD and an inability to have deep, poignant thoughts.” My favored author right now, Brandon Sanderson, blogs, tweets, Facebooks, emails, has a Smartphone, and still writes an epic fantasy novel a year. I personally am an Internet junkie and I still have written multiple manuscripts without taking a de-wired hiatus, and my blogs here on Tor.com are hardly chopped liver intellectually, if I do say so myself. Critical summary and analysis is not a simpleton’s game.

So why is it that some people feel spread thin by the information age and some don’t? Well, age is one component, I think. My generation is the first to really be born into the Internet. I was still in middle school when it was common to bike down to the library and surf online for a bit to look for something, and I had broadband in the house before I left high school. I was using the Internet on a regular basis in my education to look things up, and I was even allowed to use websites as sources in my papers (provided they were decently reputable). At the same time, I still know how to move around a library and look things up (I haven’t done it in a while, but I remember doing it and still can), and I know how to enjoy long-form narrative (or non-fiction, if it is a subject I like.)

And there, I think, is the core of what it takes to not be mush-brained. So many people today don’t know how to just sit down and read a book. Even a shorter novel of three hundred pages or so requires far more of an attention span than anything on the Internet (well, I guess eBooks are a-comin’, but that is more book than “Internet-spawn”). And this, I also think, is why long-form narrative, ie, the book, will always be around just as it has since the days before they even could call them books and instead called them epic poems.

Oh, and as an aside, I think the Internet in general is a wonderful thing. Yeah, sometimes my brain is mush-like, but I am managing to retain (at least to the greater extent) my ability to think deeply and collate information as it comes at me, even with the speed of the digital age. And that means I am processing information all the better and having more to process. I think anyone in my generation has this ability—though perhaps they need to read a book more often to exercise that ability—and I shudder to think of what my children will be like.

Anyway, you can have your information overload and news programs that look more like websites all you want, the strong mind craves immersion that only a long-form work can give. It also craves the transparency. Long-form gives people a story in which they can ignore the medium it is being told in. There are no fancy graphics, no loud noises, and no actors chewing the scenery. Aside from an occasional typo or general error on the author’s part, books are clear as a window.

And through that wonderful streak-free surface, the mind can exercise deep, cognitive thought, even if reading sessions are occasionally interrupted. I mean, even as connected as I am, and even with my laptop lid still open next to me while I read, the entire world, electronic and otherwise, becomes a little dimmer as I turn inward and curl up with a good book.


Richard Fife is a blogger, writer, and doing what he can to not be the next Lawnmower Man. You can read more of his ramblings and some of his short stories at http://RichardFife.com.

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