Most of you are incapable of reading this post attentively from start to finish. In fact, you will probably just skim the first paragraph, then quickly scroll down, your eyes will skip to the text in bold for a fraction of a second, then you will hover of the picture, and then, convincing yourself that you got the general gist, you will speed off to click on the next tab on your screen.
Yep, this is the stunning conclusion that Nicholas Carr comes to in his book ‘The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains’. One damning fact at a time he builds a case proving that the Internet is not just a mindless database of knowledge, passively waiting to be accessed and researched. It is an active medium which has the ability to change the very way we think, structure our ideas, the way we learn and the way we communicate.
Hang on, you say. Isn’t that taking this whole ancestral thing a little too far? Am I firmly on the path of giving up on smartphone and flush toilets to live in a hippie paleo commune on a Pacific island, farm coconuts and wipe with a leaf? (in the words of the timeless King Julien: ‘Who wipes??’). Bear with me for a little while.
I used to be an avid reader. I discovered books at a tender age of 3 and started reading ferociously. My mother used to joke that I swallowed books whole and it was not that far from the truth. Written (or rather printed) word had such power of me that when I did not have a fresh fiction text I would read an encyclopaedia. Fiction had the ability to keep me enthralled to the point of danger. I distinctly remember the night when I was supposed to “watch over the stove” while my mother went to see our neighbour. The 8 year old me was engrossed in “Jane Eyre” and only vaguely registered my Mum’s screams at the room full of smoke and the stove on fire on her return. I was in another world, oblivious.
My eyesight started failing early. Blaming my reading obsession, my parents waged war on books, sneaking up on me in the middle of the night (and taking away the torch from underneath my pillow), locking the crime book cupboards when I needed to study, even checking my school bag in the morning for stealthy novels between textbooks.
I continued to read books when I came to Australia but the love somewhat lessened. The language barrier made it more exhausting initially, then I didn’t really know any good authors, and then I needed to work and study. Fiction reading became a rare indulgence. Non-fiction reading was a necessary chore.
In my first degree I owned a little laptop which I used purely for document editing purposes. My knowledge base was still acquired from a printed text. The massive (and expensive) tomes on microbiology, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology were covered in multi-coloured bookmarks with text underlined in pencil. (Yes, in case you haven’t figured it out, I am a nerd). I memorised anatomy structures by drawing them with pencils (multi-coloured, of course) and writing sheets and sheets of text next to the diagrams. I still remember what a writer’s cramp feels like although I haven’t had it for years.
My computer use stepped up a level in medical school. Buying textbooks for a huge variety of subjects was not feasible plus the underground student online book share was supplying me well. I struggled initially reading textbooks online. My eyes would get tired quicker, attention waver at the slightest provocation, I missed my coloured pencils and bookmarks, I missed being able to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea.
At least this last problem was resolved when I got an iPad. Man, I love(d) this thing. My own personal window to everywhere. Not a bulky laptop with a charger, 5 minutes wind up time and somewhat disturbing warmth radiating to my groin. Coupled with a snazzy blood-red cover, this thing was the shiz.
Word processing to emails, to world wide web, to online learning, to blogging, to social media – I am amazed at how quickly my reading and Internet habits changed. I have found the world of Ancestral Health, although the search was initially triggered by a book (Gary Taubes ‘Good Calories Bad Calories’), this world would be unknown to me if it was not for blogs and social media. I have so much to be grateful for: meeting like minds like Dallas and Melissa, and being able to take our combined knowledge to the people in my part of the world. Heck, I would have never met this awesome guy if it wasn’t for the Internet.
However, recently I have been noticing some things that started to concern me. Far from being engrossed by books, I have become inattentive and distractable. Instead of looking forward to a blissful escape, picking up an old-fashioned printed book seems a chore to my concentration. When I click on a new promising link posted by someone on Twitter I skim it quickly. If scrolling down reveals a huge document I get inwardly annoyed. Frequently I get caught in the comments to the blog post, rather than the blog post itself, clicking on more links and letting my opened tabs multiply. My reading in general has become less reflective and more reactive. My interaction with those “like minds” has reduced to 140 character snippets, not the long intellectual discussions.
As for research, it’s getting harder and harder. One search on Pubmed opens you to a spiderweb of articles. One wrong turn, one wrong click – and you are caught in a labyrinth. My innate curiosity encouraged by an easy availability of information leads me away to the point where I forget what it is that I was looking for in the first place. The sheer volume of information is overwhelming. Every study on the benefits of fibre is counteracted by the study deeming it useless. If I feel lost and confused at times, what of the people who rely on popular media for their health advice?
And there is the interwebz conflicts. You never have as many opponents in your real life as you will have on the Internet. When every snippet is available for judgement, when people do not know you as a person, when your printed word is not accompanied by your tone or body language, it is all too easy to wilfully/accidentally misinterpret and cast your vote. I watch the deterioration of a healthy discussion on Facebook into crazytown bitchfest and want to go away to that Pacific island. The reality is, you wouldn’t say half of this to a person to their face, but the ability to instantly type up a knee-jerk reaction in a witty response is hard to pass.
‘The Shallows’ could not have come at a better time for me. Exhausted from meaningless internet jibes, wary of loss of own concentration and feeling the lack of intellectual stimulation, I wanted to understand what was happening. I don’t blame the Internet (neither does the author). I merely concede that to sharpen the signal I need to reduce the noise. I already keep my Twitter account private but I think it is time to take a holiday altogether. I would like to close the comments on this blog. Not because I don’t value my readers or their opinions – far from it. But I would like to concentrate my time and energy on the work that requires a 100% of me. For those who would like to stay in contact – feel free to email me. Those whose opinions I value and cherish (you know who you are) I want to stay more connected, I want to give our interaction more than just a cursory glance on my phone screen. Let’s chat, let’s exchange papers, let’s Skype. Let’s use this powerful force to what it can be – bringing minds and passions together. I am done with wasting time on anything less than that.