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Living in the World of the Wide Web

Photo by dhammza (via Creative Commons)

My brother Jeremy paused momentarily from twittering, facebooking, ipadding, and conference calling to send me a link via Google chat to Nicholas Carr’s article, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.” In a manner most apropos, Carr published the piece in Wired. After reading his article, I wonder if we might should called it ReWired instead.

As you probably guessed from reading the title of his article, Carr writes about how the web is changing the way we think (and I don’t just mean our opinions). His key idea is that the brain moves between “working memory” and “long term memory.” Web surfing operates in working memory but do to the overwhelming influx of data disruption, our brain keeps reorienting between competing streams of data. Thus we experience “cognitive overload” (think of the dread spinning wheel on your computer).

This cognitive overload means that we transfer less information to long term memory and gradually lose or weaken our ability to process ideas deeply. Or to put it in the words of Patricia Greenfield, we weaken our capacity for “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

The impact stretches into our non-surfing time because our brains actually begin processing differently. Drawing from Michael Merzenich’s pioneering work in the field of neuroplasticity, Carr suggests that “our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.”

This brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” and Michael LeGault’s reply, “Think! Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of An Eye.” There is a real tension between the instant message multi-tasking, hyper-frenzied world and the analytic, thoughtful processing that takes time.

As I read Carr’s excellent article, I wondered how people negotiated changing mental processing during dramatic shifts in history. The pre-Socratic world negotiated a dramatic shift from story to abstract reasoning. The Reformation world negotiated a dramatic shift from a memory-based oral culture to a book-based written culture. If the brain is plastic, then these shifts surely had disruptive impacts as well. I would suggest that good and bad probably came out of each shift.

Some things were discarded that may need to be rediscovered. Yet at the same time, other things were introduced that served to catalyze many positive developments.

In many ways (exceeding even the Internet), we are in the midst of an epochal shift that will most likely continue throughout our lifetimes. When it comes to the Web, how might we learn to negotiate the threat of cognitive overload and then possibility of losing our capacity for analytic thought. Can we cultivate both deep diving as well and surface snorkeling?

As I read Carr’s article, I thought about Wallas’ four stages of creativity thinking: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, Verification. Preparation is the process of gathering information. In some sense, it does carry this idea of overwhelming data. And the data is not necessarily all interrelated. Information may seem to have no connection at all. And yet, in a process that some have called “bisociation” the mind forces disparate ideas together. The result may be unexpected, surprising, and even enlightening.

This stage of creativity seems to correspond closely to Carr’s description of web use. And in that sense, the web is an excellent place for “surface snorkeling” massive amount of data. This can lead to surprising, new and often dramatic new ideas and shifts that might be associated with the “Illumination” or “Eureka!” stage of creative thinking.

But per Carr’s piece, the web may actually contend with the “Incubation” stage. This is the opposite of collection. In the mystic sense, it is the time of purgation, of luminous darkness. It is the great waiting. It is the pregnant pause. In a world of constant data overload, how might we craft “pregnant pauses” in our lives?

We may take a page from Chang Tzu and learn the mystery of the useless tree. There is a time (and a desperate need) to stop, turn off the computer, turn off the ipod, turn off the television and simply breathe. The restorative power of cultivating times of silence and deep breathing can nourish our brains and our bodies.

We might also read long articles…out loud. Or pause over a poem. Living in a culture that seems to despise poetry, we could the value of waiting over words, reading and rereading words until they come into focus.

We might write a long article or write a poem. The process of write can help us to slow down and organize our thoughts. We might try thinking again. Of course, we are always thinking. But cultivating times of intentional thought. My professors used to suggest two hours of thought for every one hour of reading. When I’ve followed their advice, I read much less but oddly enough, I learned much more.

Like an egg resting beneath the hen, the incubation period seems like wasted time. But then the shell breaks open revealing a tiny chick. Many of the great ideas that changed the course of the world, broke into this world suddenly and surprisingly.

We might also intentionally look backwards to the Pre-Socratic world or the pre-Reformation world and try to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, and feel through their hands. We cannot fully do this, but we can at least try. For instance, I think all of us might benefit from spending time learning about and practicing ancient mnemonics. Our deep memory capacity seems greatly diminished compared to our classical and medieval counterparts.

By looking backwards (at these earlier cultures) and looking forwards (into the possibilities of our connected web world), we might begin learning how to act. We might get ideas on how to negotiate this challenge and blessing of a web of information that circles and encircles and continues encircling our world.

Then we might realize (more often) the final stage of creativity: verification. This is the realization of the idea. The movement from abstraction to action. It is the idea embodied. In Christian theology, this is the Word made Flesh. We might not simply be able to reference all the cool sites and techniques on gardening. We might actually plant a real garden.

  1. June 4, 2010 at 11:02 am

    THANX DOUG,for your cool out/in look. The example of the egg shell cracking open from within to let the new life out—reminded me of a brain I saw in a jar. It was all covered with cracks! I hope that my brain is cracked up that way. Also I resolve to shut off the MacBook and turn on TV when Americas’ Funnyist Home Vedios come on. That show cracks me up too.

  2. June 4, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Despite the “firehose” of data/information cruising through the pipes of the Internet. Much of the content is NOT original. In fact, as marketers we seem to push clients into content campaigns to hopefully be crowned the content king. In reality, much of the content is rehashed and sometimes unaltered bits from one storage device to another. So, for the consumer of data much of their diet is regurgitated cud of the originator of thought.

    If we don’t, as you suggest, pause and unplug from time to time, the greatest resource will become inbred and ultimately reach synthesis. And that would just suck, wouldn’t it… 😉

  3. June 4, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    David – Cracking up is good!!

    Jeremy – I agree. Then our conversations would be reduced to the content level of most talk tv. 🙂

  4. Joe
    June 4, 2010 at 11:14 pm

    I think this goes very well with your thoughts about speech, song, repetition and chant earlier! Certainly, the advent of writing, and then the press, and then audio and video recording and broadcast brought amazing and powerful good to the world, but there is a way of interacting with the world through meter, memory, the spoken word, and speaking together that we must look long and hard to experience, and that our ancestors may have had immediately at hand.

  1. June 8, 2010 at 1:54 pm

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