Day Eight: Why You’re Getting Worse At Reading

what-the-internet-is-doing-to-our-brains

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Because I get shy, I’ve stayed mostly silent in my grad school class. I’ve been happily content just watching, learning from my peers, scribbling away in my notebook. But on the night our discussion diverted into a lesson on “the positive uses of technology in the classroom,” my hand flew straight up in the air, surprising even me.

I’m being bit dramatic, but I did in fact speak up. And I was quite surprised with how brave I was being, asserting an unpopular opinion amongst a group that had, only a moment prior, agreed to dismiss it as wrong. 

I just couldn’t hold back on this one, so I raised my hand: I don’t think it’s a good idea to utilize certain technologies in the classroom. 
Technology, for me, has always been somewhat scary. And I’m not talking about the commenters or the pornography or the substitution of online friends for In Real Lofeones. What I’m talking about is the medium. The screen and the clicking. The way our brains have reacted to it, submitted to it. What I’m talking about is the scary mounting evidence that the internet has in fact diminished our ability to think.

“But this is technological age…” I heard one counter, and again, I returned to my argument. The Internet is a gift. It is a wealth of resources and knowledge and creativity. It is a gift. But so is the work of our minds.
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And we’re losing something here. We’ve been losing something. The damage has been accumulating since the advent of the internet. And it’s only recently that science has stacked up enough evidence to tell us what it is:

The internet is killing our capacity to read.

But I doubt this surprises to you. I’m sure you’ve felt it too, in your own life. Books you once read in big chunks, you now read in pages. Articles you once chose out of interest are now immediately dismissed for being too long. Your mind is exhausted by the hard work of paying attention.

And it’s frustrating, because you want to be a good reader. You love the idea of it, settling in on the couch for a good book, taping favorite quotes to your bathroom mirror, organizing a library of all your favorite. But every time you try to place yourself on that single minded path, your mind zips into the woods, sniffing out renegade thoughts to chew on.

Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows and the conscience of the internet age put it like this:
“Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that, even as adults, our brains are very plastic… They’re very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning … the more adept we become at that mode of thinking.” Source
Put simply, and perhaps grimly, the Internet has taught our brains to become what Carr calls “distraction machines.” Through flickering ads on the sidebars, pop-ups taking us by surprise, and especially the hyperlinks, our attention gets spread to thin. After enough repetition, our brain learns to seek out distraction and becomes resistant to singular focus, and the thought patterns became our new default. Moreover, this new way of thinking follows us into all our daily activities. Have you ever just looked up and noticed? Everyone is looking down. Everyone is connected. Everyone is always somewhere else, looking for something better.
And it’s why I worry about technology in schools. It’s why I worry for us. We’re not reading because we can’t focus, we can’t focus because our brains have shift shaped. And the gravity of this loss is something I think we have yet to fully grasp.
And so, yes, take away the phones for six hours a day. Don’t even try calling the iPad a “tool.” For we who grew up without screen in hand have a responsibility ensure our kids don’t suffer our industrial fallout. They need a set aside environment that doesn’t contain a thousand different voices vying for their attention.
They need space to remember how to think and focus and imagine; they need to remember they are more than capable.
And so do you. So do I
  • “Everyone is always somewhere else, looking for something better.” Yep. I struggle, so much, with not getting distracted. Having to use social media and technology for my work makes it crucial I stay focused on the task at hand . . . and it is a constant challenge. I appreciate your thoughts here. Thank you.

  • jawnbc

    I understand your concerns and commentary. But really all technology—digital, analogue, hammers, nails, dental floss—is only imbued with whatever meaning we personally give it.

    They can be facilitative and enabling or denigrative and distracting. They can be each of these things for me, on a given day. Taking networked devices from teenagers is the 21st century version of homeschooling.

    You might in the short term keep them away from a few things, but in the longer term you do them a better service by teaching them how to use tools rather than be used by them. And sometimes, using wikipedia as a distracting timesuck is a lifesaving endeavour…

  • Totally agree. I love The Shallows, such an eye opening book.

  • Noelle

    I’m actually getting better at reading! I read longform articles all the time, (maybe a little too much,) and I can read a book and pet the cat at the same time. OK OK, I’m not looking at the screen while reading articles, (I can’t see so I’m using a screen reader, and I’m using the Kindle for PC to read because I sucked at retention even when I was a kid in the early 90’s before the internet. I did better with having someone read to me.

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