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The Coming Distraction

(What is the Internet Doing to Our Brains?)

Author: Josh Teske POSTED: Tuesday, July 27, 2010

(  Lately there’s been some discussion of a new book by Nicolas Carr, which offers a rather harsh indictment of our Internet culture.  As I read about this book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” I recalled a quote from the introduction to a collection of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales I purchased several years ago.  “It is a strange irony that our all-embracing forms of communication have killed the storyteller, and may end by making us all mute.”

Carr’s thesis is that the way we receive and access information changes the way our brains work.  The scattered and disconnected landscape of the Internet and its progeny (e.g. email, social networking sites, etc…) has reduced our ability to focus our intellect and to understand sophisticated arguments.  As a result our ability to think in a profound and contemplative manner is atrophying.

We used to leisurely read the paper or digest a lengthy magazine article to obtain information.  I’ve been digging through old, Catholic periodicals and those articles can be long and weighty, but well worth reading nonetheless.  Now our information comes in sound bites and email alerts.  In my day job the PowerPoint is the supreme form of communication as everyone wants just enough information to understand the main points.  Fair enough. At times high-level summaries are necessary and worthwhile, but now they threaten to crowd out all other forms of communication.

The problem is not that there are new and useful ways of distilling a lot of information, but rather that we are losing something important.  We’re losing the ability to process and understand any information that’s not presented summarily.  Jerry Mander wrote a book back in the 1970s decrying television as a medium of communication.  One of his primary arguments was that television would ultimately reduce political and social discourse to flimsy slogans with no real intellectual content.  Leisure had devolved from the basis of culture, to the root of intellectual degeneration.

Not only are more traditional press outlets being replaced by transitory media, we are losing our ability to comprehend those few remaining beacons of truth in shifting sands of confusion.  New forms of communication are eroding the appetite of the young for the timeless tales that nourished generations.  Tom Stoppard, best known for his wry Shakespeare adaptation Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, spoke recently of his fear that technology is sweeping away the printed page.    Children don’t read anymore, as Stoppard noted, they live in a world of technology where the moving image takes precedence over the printed page.  When an installment of the post-modern literary establishment bemoans the growing disorders of modern life we had better take note.

The corruption of narrative begun decades ago has been accelerated by a variety of technological fads.  For many who do still read the activity has mutated into a “social” experience as electronic readers introduce innovation such as “popular highlights.”  A recent New York Times article provides this glowing recommendation, “with ‘popular highlights,’ when we manage to turn off Twitter and the television and sit down to read a good book, there will be a chorus of readers turning the pages along with us, pointing out the good bits.”  Perhaps if I were reading Saint Thomas’ Summa and the chorus of fellow readers included Tommaso Maria Zigliara I would share this commentators enthusiasm.  More likely the chorus will include those adolescents inculcated with values from the “Jersey Shore” who will have little of value to offer.

I take particular umbrage when narrative is debased since stories hold a particularly dear place in my heart. They were, to a large extent, fundamental in my own conversion.  A story is not simply a diversion to provide entertainment, although a good one should and does.  The greater importance of the story is its ability to lead us out of darkness and into the light by demonstrating in dramatic fashion the higher truth.  It is this truth that is being swallowed up by the purveyors of cultural transience.

Stories work in such as way as to prepare us for the brilliance of higher truth.  Dante has to be lead out of hell and through purgatory by Virgil.  He’s not ready to have Beatrice or Saint Bernard as his guide until after his purgation.  Literature, both the pious and the secular, has an important role to play.  It embodies and emboldens a truth perhaps more palatable to a secular society.  If grace, in our modern age, must enter the world through violence, as Flannery O’Connor would have us believe, we can hope that it may also penetrate this veil of tears through the medium of stories—violent or otherwise.

For a generation that communicates in texts and tweets, who can reasonably expect the truths of Shakespeare or Dante or O’Connor to be read.  It’s bad enough there are no respectable stories being told today (modern novels with limited exceptions are trash and contemporary movies are growing more tiresome and vile by the day).  Now the very tools necessary to access the virtuous old tales are being eroded by a technology upon which we are increasingly dependent for both our recreation and our livelihood.

It’s an ominous sign for culture that people are losing the ability and desire to wrestle with subtle arguments and explore difficult subjects, but there’s a steeper cost.  If Jesus Christ is the Word and the Gospel the good news, what does our enfeebled intellect imply for our ability to understand the truths of the faith?  The heart of the problem lies in a disintegration of the very thing that defines man as man, viz. his ability to reason. 

Such a condition also precludes the attainment of any lasting happiness.  In as much as happiness is an act in discharge of the function proper to man as man, namely reason, happiness is the act of speculative understanding, of contemplating for contemplation’s sake.  In short, true happiness lies not in satisfying our immediate appetites, for no man may long be happy in this alone, but in lifting our minds to higher things.  Perfect happiness consists in lifting our minds to God.  What hope, then, is there of attaining happiness when the faculties and means for such an enterprise are removed?

For better or worse, at least for those of us who came of age in the 80s and 90s, our lives are inextricably bound up in the gadgets of this crumbling age.  There will be no return the pre-industrial Sweet Auburn, where “light labor spread her wholesome store/Just gave what life required, but gave no more.”  Even should we be able to return, the mocking death’s head would still remind us “et in Arcadia ego”—a necessary reminder lest we grow too enthusiastic in our naïve, Luddite fantasies. 

The antidote for the disjointed reality of contemporary culture is, as much as prudence allows, remembering to take time to reconnect with wholesome things that are anchored in reality.  Read an actual paper and ink book.  Yes, you can find a lot of print books that would cost you fifty dollars used for five dollars on Kindle.  Is it really worth it?  I’ve been assembling a library of old, Catholic books from which, one day, I will teach my children.  Each one bears with it a story.  The cracks in the spine, the foxing on the pages, a gift inscription or library stamp all connect that book with a vibrant human drama.  That to me is worth the added expense.  Remember, life is not about convenience and efficiency, which is the motto of those men who care only about progress and nothing about that to which they’re progressing.

There’s a lot of room for prudence in these matters.  I’ve found a wealth of good things online, things to which I would not otherwise have had access.  That being said if given the option I’d gladly choose a world where a lighted screen never flickered again.  I try to keep in mind where it all ends, and remember that one day it will all be taken away.  If our technology can help us reach our purposed end or if it provides an innocuous recreation that leaves us better able to fulfill our duties, it is serving man.  If, on the other hand, it enfeebles our wills and wits and occupies the place meant for God, then we are serving it.  In the latter scenario it will most certainly reduce us to idiots or mad men, our minds dragged down, frantically pursuing one ephemeral illusion after another.  Thus fares the land by luxury betrayed…

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