The Shallows has been on my “to read” list for over a year, but ironically I had to move through several mountains of multi-tasking to finally bust it open. Upon completion, I’m glad I read it. Thanks to Carisa Kluver of Digital Storytime for the recommendation.
Published in 2010, The Shallows is a New York Times Bestseller written by Nicholas Carr. Working through a timeline of inventions and research, Nicholas makes the case that our brains are changing as a result of interruption-overload. Our choices to immerse in the web’s interactive hypertext consume our attention without much chance for reflection. The result? Fragmented and forgetful dispositions that turn us into shallow thinkers.
In one instance, Carr explains a scenario from the 1970s at Xerox PARC when a group of computer scientists are demonstrating “multi-tasking” on a new operating system. One of the scientists in the audience remarked:
“Why in the world would you want to be interrupted – and distracted – by e-mail while programming?”
Good question. Why would you? And why is having 7 tabs open on my web browser really necessary? And why am I constantly clicking from tab to tab. And why do I keep running out of time?
The book also explains the opposing viewpoint: that the Internet “frees up” our working memory because we can look up anything on Google, liberating rote memorization so we can focus on other things. But do we ever free up time to focus, or do we just keep Googling? And is memorization part of what keeps our thinking skills strong?
If any of this sounds interesting, I would recommend reading the book and formulating a viewpoint of your own. Just turning a few pages, without having to think about what to click next, could be a relaxing tonic to help reset some of life’s basic priorities.
To answer the skeptical computer scientist: No, I would not like to be interrupted by email when I am doing other tasks. From personal experience, my focus improves when email correspondence is a discrete project, and not something that follows me throughout the day. The simple act of disabling email from my iPhone can help me sever the ball & chain of constant checking.
I don’t mean to belittle the The Shallows by summarizing a book review with an email tip, but being practical can help us get from A to B. What other tools can we use to increase our focus amid distraction?