Seo 2, mixed media on canvas, 24 x 48″. From a series commissioned by Catherine Seo, professor of business and management and a social media maven. I painted this series with her hyperconnectedness in mind.
Some of you have engaged with me on the topic of the Internet’s impact on the way we think, process, interact, make sense and process our world. Based on the streetchatter I hear in the Twitter neighborhood where I spend my time, this issue has been a Top Ten-er for months now. Steven Johnson, a reasonable voice through this ongoing discussions, has written a piece in the Sunday New York Times that addresses many of the same “yes that is true, but on the other hand” concerns I have as well on this complex, still TBD topic. The fact is I am of two minds: I am enchanted and enriched by the chaotic overstimulation of the web AND I need and crave the solitude of my contemplative time in the studio.
Here’s a quick and topical guide into the latest variation on the essential tension between these two nodes. Nicholas Carr (whose earlier article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I wrote about here and here) recently published a new book. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Also recently released is quite a different take on things, Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Both books are thorough and well documented defenses of each point of view. And they are looking at the same reality from two completely different ends of the observational spectrum.
There’s the issue of multitasking, for example. Carr makes the case that the distractions so prevalent in the online world are costing us the ability to concentrate. While tests have demonstrated that heavy multitaskers perform 10-20% worse than light multitaskers, those same tests “are meaningless as a cultural indicator without measuring what we gain from multitasking.”
Johnson uses himself as a case in point and makes an argument I have made many times:
Thanks to e-mail, Twitter and the blogosphere, I regularly exchange information with hundreds of people in a single day: scheduling meetings, sharing political gossip, trading edits on a book chapter, planning a family vacation, reading tech punditry. How many of those exchanges could happen were I limited exclusively to the technologies of the phone, the post office and the face-to-face meeting? I suspect that the number would be a small fraction of my current rate.
I have no doubt that I am slightly less focused in these interactions, but, frankly, most of what we do during the day doesn’t require our full powers of concentration. Even rocket scientists don’t do rocket science all day long.
In Johnson’s view, the core of the problem with Carr’s model is that it holds “slow contemplation of deep reading” as the highest form. According to Carr, the quiet solitude of the book is required for society to move forward. But says Johnson there is another way to view this:
Many great ideas that have advanced culture over the past centuries have emerged from a more connective space, in the collision of different worldviews and sensibilities, different metaphors and fields of expertise. (Gutenberg himself borrowed his printing press from the screw presses of Rhineland vintners, as Mr. Carr notes.)
It’s no accident that most of the great scientific and technological innovation over the last millennium has taken place in crowded, distracting urban centers. The printed page itself encouraged those manifold connections, by allowing ideas to be stored and shared and circulated more efficiently. One can make the case that the Enlightenment depended more on the exchange of ideas than it did on solitary, deep-focus reading.
Quiet contemplation has led to its fair share of important thoughts. But it cannot be denied that good ideas also emerge in networks.
Yes, we are a little less focused, thanks to the electric stimulus of the screen. Yes, we are reading slightly fewer long-form narratives and arguments than we did 50 years ago…but what of the other side of the ledger? We are reading more text, writing far more often, than we were in the heyday of television.
And the speed with which we can follow the trail of an idea, or discover new perspectives on a problem, has increased by several orders of magnitude. We are marginally less focused, and exponentially more connected. That’s a bargain all of us should be happy to make.
Can we go for the both/and on this?