Thursday, January 27, 2011

How does life in THE SHALLOWS affect the imagination?

You know I'm a social media aficionado.

I've been blogging since 2005.

It's uncomfortable to admit for some reason, but I'm online for hours each day (except Sundays, when I strive to be screen-and-plug-free), surfing, reading, shopping, booking travel, doing research, answering email, playing Scramble or WordTwist, stalking friends and family on Facebook.

One begins to wonder how this activity affects a writer's brain.

In his newest book, THE SHALLOWS, Nicholas Carr presents a brilliant case based on the latest neurological research: the Internet is rewiring our brains, and it's not good news for the future of imaginative, deep work. Wired magazine provides a good summary of Carr's argument. Here's an excerpt:
There's nothing wrong with absorbing information quickly and in bits and pieces. We’ve always skimmed newspapers more than we’ve read them, and we routinely run our eyes over books and magazines to get the gist of a piece of writing and decide whether it warrants more thorough reading. The ability to scan and browse is as important as the ability to read deeply and think attentively. The problem is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself—our preferred method of both learning and analysis. Dazzled by the Net’s treasures, we are blind to the damage we may be doing to our intellectual lives and even our culture. What we’re experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: We are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest. In the process, we seem fated to sacrifice much of what makes our minds so interesting.
I can see this in my own life. My thinking is more scattered and shallow, and my writing online  comes in short bits and pieces. Now that I tweet and write status updates, it's  harder to compose longer blog posts. This is scary, especially since I'm in the business of creating long, imaginative works of fiction. 

To write his own book, Carr confesses that he had to detach himself painfully from his Net addiction. I'm going to have to do the same. I've always tried to take Sabbath days once a week, staying away from screens and plugs on Sundays, but the time has come to preserve and nourish the depth of my imagination with a more proactive approach. How about you?

We're not Luddites—we love the Net for it's wealth of community and information, and will continue to use it, but we need to give our brains space to rest, reflect, contemplate, learn, and dream. Got any ideas, habits, or practices that work for you? Interested in joining me in 2011 in an effort to keep our Net use within limits? Leave a comment below with a plan or idea, fellow addicts. I need your help.

10 comments:

Amy said...

I have also noticed for the first time in the past few months just how much it is affecting my ability to concentrate and think. I am constantly losing my train of thought and getting distracted.

I also just waste time. What I've been trying to do is the minute I realize I'm on the computer and not DOING anything, I get off. I'm limiting my blog reading and Twitter time. And truth is, it feels good! :)

Trisha said...

Speaking of Wired, the January issue had an article you might also be interested in. Clive Thompson on How Tweets and Texts Nurture In-Depth Analysis. Okay, not about fiction, but still some food for thought.

As for advice, I like what Amy said about using the computer with purpose. It's something I occasionally do, but should work harder at.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

It's interesting, but I wonder if we gravitate toward media for which we have an affinity. I'm not on Facebook so I don't know what that's like, but Twitter is the only short-format medium I'm on. I might be on there a long time one night, but only 5 minutes a day for the rest of the week, so it's still not a dominant medium for me.

I never text people, and I've only received about 5 text messages in my life. I do exchange longer emails with several people.

My heart is with blogging, and I've noticed that the posts I write now are--to my surprise--slightly *longer* than the posts I wrote when I started 3 years ago.

And I've noticed people still read novels more than short stories.

Social media also seem to go in waves. I wonder if Facebook and Twitter will still be around in 5 years, or if not, what will be dominant then.

All that said, I try to be very mindful of time spent online. I've organized a schedule--certain places I go daily, others only weekly.

Sarah Louise said...

One thing I find is if I remember to put my laptop back on the desk, that helps. For a while it was the last thing I looked at before I went to bed, first thing in the morning.

Also, when my mother visited early this week for 2 days, I was offline for a full day and didn't miss it. I had a real live person in the other room, I didn't need to talk to the friends who live inside my computer.

I still have not been able to pull off the full "sabbath day," but I have problems with that in other parts of my life too, I think b/c I work Tues-Sat and because I am single with a somewhat limited "real" social life. But I'm working on it.

xo,
SL

gail said...

I've known for a long time that my on-line diversions are eating up time I should be spending writing. (Love hearing that you're spending hours a day on-line, Mitali.) Wasting a couple of hours a day wasn't so bad when I had five days a week to write. But now that I'm down to three because of family responsibilities, it's...well, disaster may be too strong a word.

I've read recently that the human brain craves novelty and the Internet feeds right into that. This paragraph I'm working on isn't working well? I'll take a break and see what's happening at the CNN website. I've written two paragraphs? Time to move on to Salon. Or a game of spider solitaire.

Since early last fall I've tried to impose structure on my day by not even checking my e-mail until after noon. (I can kill forty minutes responding to a family e-mail and end up stressed because I've lost work time.) That means I'll have had to work for a few hours before indulging. I'm only occasionally able to manage that.

Oddly enough, I was on vacation earlier this month, and it didn't bother me at all to go without the Internet. Vacation was probably a novel enough experience for my mind.

Beth S. said...

I have been worrying about this very thing for a while now. I have worried that the internet and the way people are learning now is causing our species to devolve instead of evolve.

olugbemisola said...

Every time that I have taken short Internet breaks (for a week at a time, etc.), I am amazed at how refreshed and inspired I feel. This blog post on Input vs.Creativity first got me thinking about it:
http://www.craftypod.com/2010/07/13/input-vs-creativity-or-thoughts-on-surfing-the-web/

I find the "surfing" aspect most detrimental for me; when I blogged regularly, I do feel like I produced more, and enjoyed my creative pursuits more. For me, there's a kind of anxiety that comes with looking at interesting links, sites, posts, etc. constantly, even with going through emails.
It helps when I deliberately avoid email, social networking, etc. for the first couple of hours of my weekday mornings. Organizing some of what I see or get with Google Reader, "Read It Later", and Pinterest has been helpful too. I'd like to "schedule" and structure my weekday online time even more, and get better at leaving off over the weekends. And maybe blog again (craft blog, that is); it was good for my work.

Gregory K. said...

It is a real challenge for those of us who love the connectivity. A few things I've done to help myself make sure I'm using my online time well....

I cut down the number of posts on my blog (and on one of them, publicly stated my schedule). This relieved pressure and that little nagging thing in the back of my head that was always looking for/thinking of blog post ideas.

I use a time (on my iPhone, on my computer, or even a regular timer) and limit my _______ time (could be blog reading, could be tweeting, could be whatever). I take days off, particularly from FB and Twitter, the two things I find most potentially distracting because of the speed at which they update.

I also reach certain goals before I let myself spend time online (though will often check Twitter and might even tweet as I make my breakfast). When my schedule allows chuncks of time, I treat that time like a 9-5 job. I find this falls apart on days I have smaller chunks already. Those days, I've noticed, used to be more productive on big-picture stuff. Still, I view much of what I do online as productive, too, so there's alays gonna be something not getting enough attention!

I look forward to following the ideas folks share here, too.

Jacquie said...

I have a love-hate relationship with the Internet. I've also been having trouble focusing on my writing (and focusing my thoughts) because of some health issues. The Internet exacerbates this problem. I plunk myself down in front of the computer each morning all set to write, then hours later come up for air and realize I haven't gotten any writing done and my eyes are burnt out (I was planning to stay off the computer and rest my eyes today). I think I may need some kind of intervention.

Actually, I do find it helps to avoid checking emails, Facebook, etc. until after I've gotten some writing done (if I check them first, I'm lost), and to avoid taking any mobile Internet device with me when I'm away from my desk.

Thanks for making me feel less of an anomaly!

Eden Mabee said...

While I agree that the web can be a time-killer, I wonder if it's more as Gail noted: that we're only following our brain's drive for novelty. Also before computers (or mass-market publishing), we also treasured the written word more because we still had the (i believe mistaken) assumption that difficulty in creation added value to a product.

That's starting to change, but I'm not sure we're doing anything different to our brains than we have been doing since the 50s when television came to the house or many centuries and years before when our ancestors used to walk through crowded marketplaces and had to decide with stall they would visit over the many who were hawking their wares.