“Smarter Than You Think”

Looks like there’s a dissenting voice to Nicholas Carr’s findings in The Shallows: I just saw this interview with Clive Thompson, whose new book is called Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

It sounds like the two authors agree that technology is changing our brains – but based on this interview, Thompson believes we gain more than we lose. I’m interested in this concept of “ambient awareness,” especially in my work as a therapeutic educator. Does interpreting social media updates help us interpret face-to-face social behavior? Does the greater stream of information translate into a greater understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings?

I’m curious to see whether Carr and Thompson use any of the same data to reach different conclusions. Adding Smarter Than You Think to my to-read list.

Greater than its parts

For my current M.Ed. practicum I’m looking at systems thinking, an area I’ve had an interest in but am now just diving into understanding. Today I started reading Margeret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science and was struck by this passage:

One of the differences between new science and Newtonianism is a focus on holism rather than parts. Systems are understood as whole systems, and attention is given to ‘relationships within those networks’. Donella Meadows, an ecologist and author, quotes an ancient Sufi teaching that captures this shift in focus:
“You think [that] because you understand ‘one’ you must understand ‘two’, because one and one makes two. But you must also understand ‘and’.”

 

I love this idea: that we must understand the ways in which connection amplifies us, not just the individuals involved. 

A few hours later browsing Reddit I came across a photo series linked as “16 things greater than their parts.” I don’t know the source of these photos (although some remind me of similar ones by Todd McLellan) but they embody the “one and one is two” systems thinking idea beautifully. 

A Rubik’s Cube

A rose: 

 

Check out the rest of the photos here. 

Book review: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Shelly Turkel’s Alone Together I wanted a more detailed look into how technology use actually impacts our biological makeup, not just our social interactions. The Shallows by Nicholas Carr provided me this perspective and helped me to understand the nuts and bolts of how reading and socializing on the internet impacts the way our brains function.

Carr places networked computers in the same lineage as the clock, the map, and the printing press. He describes a human history wherein technology alters the physical networking of our brains and changes the ways we interact with the world and with each other. In this sense, the internet is just one more technology in this constant parade of change. I appreciated how Carr highlighted historical criticisms of technology that we would now consider to be very basic – such as the book. The book is commonly seen as objectively “good,” but Carr reflects that around the advent of the book, people had concerns about the negative impacts of books on society, such as a poet who wrote of the “confusion” and “froth” in the “ocean of print” (p. 71). The inclusion of these critical perspectives addressed one of my biggest objections to Turkel’s Alone Together – current technology is not isolated, nor is the backlash to it, and this book compares these patterns not just to developments over the author’s life, but over the collective human experience.

Using a combination of behavioral and neurological studies as his evidence, Carr clearly lays out the case that frequent internet use, particularly reading online, changes the pathways in our brains, causing a shallower understanding of information and a diminished capacity to make meaning. Humans developed deep reading skills when language became written, and now as language becomes hyperlinked, we develop a different type of skill that is visual and spatial. We become better at skimming and quickly making decisions as we practice this more. As Carr puts it: “we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest” (p. 138). Carr’s argument is complex and the evidence rich; to abbreviate it here wouldn’t do it justice – and is part of why I highly recommend this read to anyone interested in teaching and learning with the brain in mind.

I read most of this book on weekends at a cabin by a lake. There was no cell phone service and weak wireless internet. I read this text as a physical book, laying in a hammock, without a real sense of what time it was or how long I had been reading. While typically I am on the side of defending the internet, espousing its benefits, and pushing for its integration in our schools, I couldn’t help but feel connected to Carr’s message as I swung on the hammock. My brain is practiced in deep reading because that’s what I grew up doing, but as we continue to push for internet use in schools, we push them to practice skimming, evaluating, and decision-making. I would love for everyone to have both of these abilities and to balance them based on the context of the task at hand. Carr is in agreement – we shouldn’t revert to a pre-internet era, nor could we. Yet we should be thinking more intentionally about how and when we unplug, and creating time for ourselves and our children to be quiet and meditative.

After finishing the Shallows I’m moving on to reading Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods to think more about that quiet and meditative space in our lives.

View all my reviews