"We lose our ability to say that this is important, this is unimportant"

Nicholas Carr is known for the essay positing that Google is making us all stupid.  If you haven’t read it, I think you should.  Just the opening paragraphs resonate:

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial ” brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going–so far as I can tell–but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I’m there now.  No lie.  I suspect many of us are. 

I’ve been blogging at Brutally Honest since October of 2003.  When I look through the archives, I see that I used to be quite verbose, quite wordy, more a writer (though a rough one) than an aggregator.  No longer.  Because of the time it takes for me to find something worthy to post about, because I have a day job, because I’d like to post more frequently, I find that it’s easier and quicker to simply link, excerpt and comment briefly than to write something fully original and fully… well… thoughtful.  I’ve become more an Instapundit (though not as prolific and with much less talent) and less a Jay Tea (which can’t be all bad frankly… heh).

Yet I aspire to be more Jay Tea-ish and less Instapundit-ish. 

Into that aspiration steps Mr. Carr with a new book he’s called “The Shallows”, a book exploring how deeply the Internet is damaging our brains:

NicholasCarr “The seductions of technology are hard to resist,” Carr acknowledges in that book, which has sold an estimated 50,000 hardback copies in the United States alone. But he thinks it’s time to start trying.

In a speech at last week’s Seoul Digital Forum and an interview with AFP, Carr restated his concerns that IT is affecting the way people think and feel and even the physical make-up of their brains.

Every new technology in history — like the map and the clock — changed the way people think but Carr sees special dangers in the Internet.

He got his first PC back in the 1980s and was an avid net user until “a few years ago, I noticed some disturbing changes in the way my mind worked. I was losing the ability to concentrate.”

While the Internet has enormous benefits in delivering incredible amounts of information at incredible speed, it’s also a distracting and interruption-rich environment.

Carr said it encourages quick shifts in focus — and discourages sustained attention and the ability to think deeply and creatively about one topic and to challenge conventional wisdom.

Popularity-driven search engines, in one of the ironies of an information-rich Internet, worsen the problem by leading everyone to the same sources, he said.

Social networks, while pleasurable and fun, increase distractedness by bombarding users with brief bits of information.

“We take in so much information so quickly that we are in a constant state of cognitive overload,” Carr argued.

“Multitasking erodes cognitive control. We lose our ability to say that this is important, this is unimportant. All we want is new information.”

So Carr suggests that we stay offline more, read the printed word more (which I’d think would include electronic readers).  He goes so far as to suggest that companies reward those who switch off and then he says something that hit home for me:

“I think as a society we’re choosing information overload: we’re choosing to sacrifice the more meditative and contemplative aspects of our minds.”

That hit home for me because very early this morning, I’d read the following from Jill Carattini:

There is a phrase in Latin that summarizes the idea that the way our minds and souls are oriented is the way our lives are oriented. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi is an axiom of ancient Christianity, meaning: the rule of worship is the rule of belief is the rule of life. That is, the way we are oriented in worship (whatever it might be that we focus on most devotedly) orients the way we believe and, in turn, the way we live. In a cultural ecosystem where we seem to worship possibilities, where freedom is understood as the absence of limitation upon our choices, and where the virtue of good multitasking has replaced the virtue of singleness of heart, it is understandable that we are both truly and metaphorically “all over the place”–mentally, spiritually, even bodily, in a state of perpetual possibility-seeking. 

Of course, the ancient Christians who first repeated the idiom, Lex orandi lex credendi lex vivendi, did so with Christ in mind as the subject, aware that the Son of God was the only object of worship who could ever quiet their own restless souls. Before any formal creeds were written, the early church held this adage, knowing that the essence of their theology would rise from their acts of adoration, thanksgiving, and petition. And they knew that the ways of their worship, the things they said when they prayed, not only defined their ultimate beliefs, but ultimately defined their lives. 

No matter our object of worship, the same is true of our lives today. That which claims the most thorough part of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength both reflects and shapes our lives. We most certainly live in a time when the greatest commandment comes with great difficulty, when focusing our hearts, minds, and souls on one thing is a challenge met with a constant parade of options vying for our attention. But the God who longs to gather us, whose arm is not too short to save (even from ourselves), nor ear too dull to hear, is the same yesterday and today. 

What’s more, the distracted soul is hardly unique to the age of Google. There was a time when the ancient church father Augustine of Hippo defined his soul as “too cramped” for God to enter. He prayed that God might widen it, seeing too that it needed to be emptied. “You prompt us yourself to find satisfaction in appraising you,” he prayed. “[Y]ou made us tilted toward you, and our heart is unstable until stabilized in you.”(3) Of course, such satisfaction in worship is not likely if God is known as one of many possibilities in a never-ending, ever-expanding web of activities and diversions. If faith is only a part of life, then it has become as optional as pursuing one more hyperlink or skimming one more article. But those who fully approach the God of all possibilities find rest and focus, wisdom–and indeed, possibility–for their souls. As we worship, so will we live.

If our minds are distracted by the Internet, by search engines, by social media, how much more might our souls be distracted from that which is to the believer all the more important?

It’s food for the soul that requires our focus.  Lord, help me in my distractedness.

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