What the Net is Doing to Our Brains

The conversation is back with the release of Nick Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I haven’t read it yet but you can get the gist by perusing the reviews, following Carr’s blog, or reading RSSted Development where I briefly contrast Carr and Cowen. To see some back-and-forth on what the studies actually say about technology and distractability, read the comments section of Jonah Lehrer’s post.

I continue to try to figure out how I can improve my ability to concentrate, and I worry about how the internet is adversely affecting that mission. In the end I fall into the pro-internet camp, if such a crude distinction can even be made, but I do not think this is mutually exclusive with whole-hearted support of the broader conversation Carr has ignited or this Alain de Botton quip:

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is how we can relearn to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything.

Recent steps I’ve taken to improve my ability to concentrate: a) track my time more rigorously, b) use self-control to block access to twitter, facebook, and other time sink sites; c) turn off email for hours at a time, d) don’t use mobile email, e) wear Bose headsets to block out noise and to remind myself I’m supposed to be working.


  • Speaking of books I haven’t read yet, The Authenticity Hoax sounds interesting.
  • Here’s a clip showing what not to do if you’re a PR person faced with an inquisitive reporter via SF’s Laguna Honda hospital.
  • AEI crunches the numbers on how much money U.S. airline consumers would save if Open Skies were global.
  • Colin Marshall asks how much human energy is wasted on personal relationship re-engineering (aka therapy).
10 comments on “What the Net is Doing to Our Brains
  • A few questions.

    What do you use to track time? (An iPhone app perhaps?) And what activities do you track?

    Why not mobile mail? And do you refrain from most mobile distractions – apps, reading, twitter – or just email?

  • My god that PR guy and the reporter are annoying. [7-year-old voice] “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me.” Christ.

    I’d sure like to throw the guy from Oakland with the I AM A MOTHERFUCKER shirt in that mix.

  • Short of Derek James’ rhetorical call to arms for a “Luddite revolution to smash the servers and free ourselves from the tyranny” of computers, I think de Botton’s prescription for periods of fasting in the life of our minds is well-advised as an antidote to the alluring siren call of the internet.

    I find much needed respite for my mind from the tyranny of the backlit computer display simply by glancing out the window at a lovely scene of sylvan and estuarial beauty.

    But I’m jolted back to the horrifying netherworld of a separate reality when I observe the onscreen antics of the millennials in this household as their Mario Kart Wii personas race around making me feel as if I’m stuck in the cartoonish nightmare of a bad DMT trip, complete with clownish machine elves whooping it up in an orgy of maniacal sensory overload.

    I fear if they caught me writing these words they would tie me to my chair with USB cables the way Gulliver was tied down by the Lilliputians.

    I certainly agree that the act of engaging with literature is an essential element of culture, and I’m happy to report that the Lilliputians read a good bit from actual books, though their predilection to absurd and childish fantasy is a bit discomfiting to a lover of staid old classics like Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

    I will admit that video games may actually improve visual attention and memory, as Jonah Leher would have it, but the empirical evidence leads me to believe they do nothing for the development of good taste, unlike the more sophisticated games my generation played in our freak-outs where Flo & Eddy did somersaults on the stage.

    I don’t go for this nonsense of Clay Shirky’s, though, in his riposte to Nick Carr at the Wall Street Journal, in which he asserts that “using the Internet well will require new cultural institutions as well, not just new technologies.”

    Shirky may have a point about “cognitive surplus” but this is standard Web 2.0 bullshit.

    I feel sorry for the Yahoos who buy that line, and will cleave with Nick Carr to the immortal words of that Roman philosopher Seneca (an animal which had some little portion of reason):

    “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

  • I’m 55 years old. My attention span predates the rise of the Internet by many decades. Perhaps that’s why this assertion about concentration is meaningless to me. I was *under-stimulated* before I could read over 400 blogs a day. I read as many books as I could. My dad was the same way. We subscribed to 38 magazines. I can concentrate if I want to or skim if I want to. I don’t worry about tracking my time.

  • Socrates decried the advent of books exclaiming, “With a place to keep memories, to write notes in, how will people be able to remember any of their ideas?”

    Emerson spoke along the same lines saying, “Notes reduce the capacity of the memory and insurance increases the rate of accidents.”

    Are today’s anti-internet “purists” different from “purists” in the past, who cursed the telegraph which, “stole all moments peace and allowed me no moments respite” or are they cut from the same cloth.

    But one thing anti-interneters have on the old resisters of change is that there actually is a saturation on internet, TV, and radio (unlike telegraph, letters, or books) and nowadays one can drown oneself in content 24/7 anywhere’s on this planet where only 60 years ago that was not possible.

    PS. Thanks for the book pick.

  • You were wondering about the best way to practice concentrating…

    The answer is: do it. Concentrate.

    Every other impulse you have shun immediately and just concentrate, the best you can.

    Im pretty sure that the only way our brain can improve at something is to do it more. So to be better at true concentration, then you must truly concentrate.

    This post is pretty obvious and im writing it for myself as well as I am working on ways to do thigns better and it helps sometimes to write these ideas out, which im sure you know.


  • I think we skim more now because most stuff were and are skimmable, and we now know to use our discretion better. While it’s true that the level of casualness has increased with extensive use of Net Apps, it also has an upside in that we are far more objective to select stuff that’s dear to us since we now waste less time on peripheral, skimmable stuff (say reading a review and buying a book is faster over the internet). The time so saved get spent on actually reading the book and there I don’t think we compromise because we’re habituated to skimming over the net. We use our discretion. To me, internet eliminates a lot of wastage and de-clutters my mind and in fact I am able to concentrate better on far fewer things where my pointed focus is called for.

  • The steps you mentioned increase the chances that you CAN concentrate, but they arent actually concentrating. They are just barriers to concentration that have been removed.

    (or are they…what is concentration? another time…)

    But to be better at concentrating you must actively concentrate. Actively dismiss distractions and proceed with the task at hand…as much as possible.

    Much easier said than done but very effective I think.

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