The distractions in our lives have been proliferating for a long time, but the Internet is a medium that is programmed to insistently and wildly scatter our attention . As revolutionary as it may be, the Net is the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mould the human mind.
The Internet may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the alphabet, number systems, printing press and the book.
No one can deny the benefits that modern technology brings especially during covid lockdown, but we need to think about the impact of the Internet on the way we think and learn. An honest appraisal of any new technology requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained. This for me recalls Hans Christian Anderson’s parable of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Someone needs to challenge what no one else dares to.
Nicholas Carr in his book ‘The Shallows’ explores how the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. He shows how the integration of smartphones into daily life appears to cause a brain drain that diminishes such vital mental skills as learning, logical reasoning, memory, abstract thought, problem solving and creativity.
“We shouldn’t allow the benefits of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self.”Nicholas Carr
The book brings together current research on the impact modern technology is having on our brain. It is a sobering but very worthwhile read, which provides some deep thought. I would recommend it to you, especially if you are a parent of young children growing up in this app world.
When was the last time you read an article or book without distractions? Or you had a meal with family or friends without someone looking at their phone? Whether we have consciously or unconsciously chosen how we use our computers, the risk is we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary and single-minded concentration. Which is the ethic the invention of the book bestowed on us.
“To be everywhere is to be nowhere”Seneca
Every time we go online, we cast our lot with the juggler, as we are bombarded with distractions. We enter a world that encourages cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Of course, it’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards. Ironically, whilst reading The Shallows on my Kindle, I kept stopping to highlight points that resonated with me!
As you are reading something, such as this article, do you get email notifications, or does an advert or link to another information site pop up? All of this aims to distract you and draw your attention elsewhere. Google and the like are quite literally in the business of distractions. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought as that doesn’t fill their coffers. I am experimenting with putting the links at the end of this article to reduce at least one distraction.
We may think that we are clever when we multi-task, but the research shows the more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able you are to think and reason out a problem. It is harder to get into ‘flow’ when you are trying to focus on more than one task.
“Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.”Daniel Levitin
We have more information at our fingertips than we have ever had, yet more information can mean less knowledge. Information is data, but it is how we use it that creates the knowledge.
The Net is only making us smarter if we define intelligence by its own standards of quantity and speed. If we think about the quality and depth of our thought, then we may come to a very different conclusion.
“We are training our brains to pay attention to the crap”.Dr Michael Merzenich
The consequences of fake news, allegations, trolling and poor-quality information can be dangerous; even fatal. We can see this in the dubious facts on vaccination programmes, politics and online bullying and racism. The danger is that many see the written word as fact and no longer question its validity. The impact this can have on the mental health of younger people is sadly becoming all too apparent.
A precious aspect of the human brain is memory, but are we giving too much over to technology? Many of us no longer remember telephone numbers, appointment dates or travel routes, as we hand it over to our devices to remember for us. Why remember facts when we can look them up instantly? We are outsourcing our memory. The Web could be described as a technology of forgetfulness.
The brain is like a muscle, and we can train it to develop in certain areas. If those pathways are not used, they fade. How many people remember or prefer to read a map? The risk is they rely on GPS, but what if the technology lets us down? For example, my neighbour’s daughter got lost in Dorset when her satnav stopped working. She could not remember the way and although there was a map in the car, she had no idea how to use it.
As a blog writer, the SEO system encourages me to include external links, photos, and shorter sentences. Texts, Tweets and other social media are teaching us to keep it brief. Are we losing our beautiful descriptive language to sound bites? When was the last time you hand wrote a personal letter of heartfelt thanks to someone?
In her novel ’Last Letter From Your Lover’, Jojo Moyes shows how our language has changed over time and gives examples of real breakup messages.
“U n me finished”Actual text sent to end a relationship
Competitors at a recent Toastmasters International speech contest, when asked which technology they would like to ‘uninvent’ and why, all bar one said the mobile phone. Whilst they recognised the benefits it brings; they also highlighted the intrusion and distractions it created. The winner of the competition pointed out that we cannot uninvent something, but we can invent new ways of behaving with that technology. How we behave is not the fault of the machine.
You see people with their mobile phones constantly in their hand, even while standing in the sea or ‘relaxing’ on the beach. Families and friends sit round meal tables and each of them is on their phone. What message are we teaching?
Even my two year old granddaughter is highly capable with modern technology (probably better than me!) It is a part of her generation’s world, but we can also teach them other values by role modelling social behaviours and being in the moment with them. We can maintain the social culture for the future.
The Internet, computers, smartphones and social media are now part of our lives and no doubt there will be new technologies in the future. We can choose how we use them and not become a slave to a new master. We can choose not to outsource the phenomenal capabilities of our own brains to these devices. The choice is yours and you can choose to dive in deeper rather than paddle in the shallows.
Ten Top Tips to Cope with Distractions
Here are my tips to cope with the distractions in our lives and avoid becoming a slave to modern technology.
- Switch off email notifications and set a time to look at emails.
- Reduce the amount of time you spend on social media.
- Only focus on one task at a time.
- Explore in greater depth and from more sources a topic you are researching.
- Test your memory and numerical skills regularly off-line; e.g. crosswords, chess or bridge.
- Have a regular digital detox day – say on a Sunday.
- Plan your journey or teach your children map reading.
- Socialise with friends without technology – be in the moment.
- Turn your phone off at night.
- Lose yourself in a good book.
If you would like to discuss coping with distractions in more detail, then please contact me; or why not research in more depth with the links below and more?
- The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
- Greatest Inventions
- The Emperor’s New Clothes,
- Daniel Levitin
- Michael Merzenich
- Toastmasters International
- The Last Letter from Your Lover, Jojo Moyes
- Mastering Technology Etiquette
Also published on Medium.