Fathom the Shallows

I’ve been wandering through this land
Just doin’ the best I can Tryin’ to find what I was meant to do
And the people that I see
Look as worried as can be
And it looks like they are wanderin’, too.

And I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound
Where I’m bound
I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound…,   Tom Paxton

Once a smart phone became firmly established in my daily routine, layered on top of an assertive laptop, the compulsion to check emails and all manner of distraction entrenches week by week into my neurons and synapses.  The message notification “dings” set me to salivating like Pavlov’s dogs; resisting the impulse to jump from what I am doing to the current diversion is increasingly difficult.  Focus blurs.

Nicolas Carr published in 2010 The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, which analyzes the physical, emotional and psychological effects in our brains of using the net.  I first listened to “The Shallows” as an audio book, now I’m reading it on the Nook; I can’t get the ideas to stop their reverberations. The implications for us and for the lives of our children are unsettling.

Our method of acquiring information is transmuting us into feverish wantons with the attention deficits of mosquitoes in a crowded tent on a humid summer night.  On laptop or smart phone we flit to the compelling chime of personal and work email, Facebook updates, Linked In messages, Tweets, text messages and voicemail notifications. The banner of multitasking rides at the head of a rabble with a disordered compass.

”It wasn’t just that so many of my habits and routines were changing as I became more accustomed to and dependent on the sites and services of the net.  The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes…. My brain… wasn’t just drifting.  It was hungry.  It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it – and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.” The Shallows, Nicolas Carr

Brain theory long assumed genetically predisposed neurons and synapses which congealed in late adolescence.  Neurology now concludes that plasticity for neuron and synapse formation persists for all of our lives.  We rewire incessantly. New experience and repetitive actions shape fresh biological connections; neglected habits atrophy.  The media is not only the message, but re-forms our minds, our nerve cells, how we think and what we think.

We read fewer books and grow impatient with long articles (or blog posts).  We follow YouTube videos, clever slogans and the Tweets of movie actors and baseball players where once we probed nuance in the insights of genius. 140 characters and hash tags hazard scarce space for fine distinctions. Research and analysis defaults to bouncing hyperlink to hyperlink, descending into minutiae and boggling detail. Renaissance Man is no more; as my boss is fond of saying, we major in minors. We know (or have immediate access to) more and more about less and less.

”By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies.  But this you did not wish.”  Isaiah 30:15

Dinosaurs Far Side Gary LarsonI wonder if other societal problems are related.  Can it be coincidence that the first generation engrossed in on line distraction and video games from their infancy is also the generation beset with epidemic Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder?  After decades of consistent improvement, IQ scores have declined in the last fifteen years, mainly in writing and verbal skills.  Studies cited in “The Shallows” are conclusive that those reading material in a traditional book retain more and have deeper understanding of the same material read by other subjects on screen with hyperlinks, supposedly better equipping them to explore and understand associated texts.  How can these two issues not be related?  Are we sacrificing biological memory capacity and the ability for deep thinking even as we gain in artificial memory and silicone aided rapid computation and recall?  Are exponential gains in access to facts depriving us of knowledge, and worse, of sorely needed wisdom?  Where do we find peace in feverish, addictive distraction?

Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
   Bob Dylan

The still developing technology affords us the ability to assimilate not only the printed word, but images, video and speech from sites like TED and on line learning educational channels from many universities.  Irrevocably alterations occur to how we learn and communicate, even how our brain works, hopefully into wisdom, not Babel.  Should we choose to dissipate this windfall into pornography, trivialities, Tweets, two minute YouTube videos, Facebook posts and in violent, amoral games like Grand Theft Auto, we will corkscrew into degradation.  One of the earliest developments in printed books was pervasive pornography, but the ship pitched in the storm for a while and then righted. Should we similarly roll with the wind and tide to integrate imaginatively human wisdom with this virtually unlimited source of information, our children will have a future worth leaving them.  Our creative gifts and free will to act will set us on our path.  The jury is not only still out, we are the accused, the advocates, the judge and the jury.

“Many years back I gave up all claim to a rational view of the world and even avoided people who believed that the laws of physics and causality have any application when it comes to understanding the mysteries of creation or the fact that light can enter the eye and form an image in the brain and send a poetic tendril down the arm into a clutch of fingers that could write the Shakespearean sonnets.”  Creole Belle, James Lee Burke  


Filed under Culture views

8 responses to “Fathom the Shallows

  1. Rita

    When Jack retires I’m going to get him a flip phone like mine. He’ll probably go through some withdrawal, but I believe there are places people can go to get off these time consuming, highly addictive devices.


  2. Joe

    Hi Jack and Rita. I have an easy solution. Sell your smart phone… get a simple trac phone at Walmart with no apps. ($99 per year.) and just use your lap top. Any other problems just let me know 😉


  3. Greg Parquette

    I have a flip phone; I refuse to get a personal schmart phone…….my business BB (my electronic tether) provides all the distraction I can handle. Give me a cup of coffee and the newspaper and I am happy.
    Please tell me the value of twitter other than to make a jackass of your self across a broad medium, I don’t follow the logic.

    I don’t like Facebook (although I set one up years ago to keep an eye on the boys) and rarely go there. I constantly get email reminders that I have friends waiting for me….frankly I have enough friends. I just need to figure out how to stop that but I keep forgetting my password.

    That should be the next topic Jack, how to use available neuron and synapse capacity to remember all my flipping passwords. I miss the good old days of transistor radio’s at the beach listening to the Red Sox.


  4. Paul Camara

    Great post Jack, even though it’s considerably longer than 140 characters. I find the only antidote is to detox regularly; to create a smart phone/Outlook/Tweet/FB/Instagram/GChat/Text-free zone to work & play in for at least portions of our days. Easier said than done when the new expectation is immediate availability. I frequently send work emails after 8:00 PM and invariably get responses before 11:00 PM. It’s the new benchmark. But we still have recourse to prayer and contemplation, the Angelus, Rosary and Chaplet (check your iPhone at the door). And I so prefer hard copy books to eBooks. Before I save the world, I’ll start with me. Thank God that Jesus still speaks in sentences too long for Twitter.


  5. Rita

    Add to the above the loss of objective morality and a crisis in education and it’s not hard to understand why the culture has coarsened… See; As Education Declines, So Does Civic Culture http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324577304579055511904387286.html?mod=ITP_opinion_0


  6. Rita

    Just learned that yesterday’s shooter at the Washington DC Naval Installation spent many, many hours playing violent video games. As much as 16 hrs. at a time on occasion. Hmmmmmmmm


  7. Angela Marie

    Great post, Dad. I would like to read this book someday. I think it is especially important for parents of young children to understand how much being saturated in technology affects the brain. On the one hand our kids need to be at least proficient in current technology as probably most of the jobs of the future will require this capability. However, the need for a moral compass, the ability to reason logically and to identify the difference between objective truth and ideology is important for every human person to lead a fulfilled, happy life (a life which doesn’t define happiness merely by how much pleasure it brings). These things cannot be learned on a screen, or through quick posts on social media. They have to be absorbed through real life experiences and in reading literature which leads to an appreciation of what is true, good and beautiful.


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