(As an update to the post below, here’s an interesting excerpt yesterday in Scientific American about the widespread loss of student listening and attention skills due to the proliferation of information gadgets. The excerpt is from a just-released book, The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success, by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson.)
I first came across Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, nearly two-and-a-half years ago, in June of 2010, as I was piecing together the last chapter of my own book. When I say “came across,” I mean that I learned about Carr’s book via online publicity, scanned some of its content, and skimmed a few early reviews. Within a few computer clicks, I had grasped the book’s message (I thought) so confidently that I referenced it in Chapter 8 of my book, right there on page 186:
“And in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, journalist Nicholas Carr offers the well-formulated thesis that our 24/7 information age is robbing us of nothing less than our ability to think deeply.”
I knew at the time that Carr was on to something tremendously important. At an intuitive level, his core premise resonated with my experience almost perfectly. Of course, I didn’t actually read his book. I was too busy finishing my own. And I certainly didn’t understand, at the time, the comic irony of my quickly and shallowly dipping a spoonful of content from the deep well of his synthesized work.
On Saturday afternoon, I finally picked up the new paperback edition of The Shallows and immersed myself in it over two days. It’s been at least 20 years since a non-fiction book gripped me with such force, and I can’t think of one I would recommend more highly. Carr isn’t formulating academic theory, but instead, through his synthesis of a wide array of historical observations and neurological research, he’s telling a tale about how the human mind interacts with the forces of technology, for better and worse. For all the incredible advances and conveniences offered by networked computing, we humans are riding a technological wave that might be returning us back to the viscerally-directed attention patterns of our pre-literate ancestors.
The book’s insights not only hit home for me at a personal level. Most of my professional work involves supporting and improving the performance of executives and entrepreneurs. Many of them are harried, distracted, and drowning in torrential streams of unfiltered data. They reflexively snap their heads back and forth in hopes of capturing a few key bits and bytes of information. When they move with speed it’s usually toward unclear destinations, but more often they feel as if they’re running in quicksand. Our ongoing joke about adult ADD has become so common that it just tires us even more.
Plenty of controversy has flown back and forth about Carr’s conclusions, with valid viewpoints on both sides, as he points out. But, when it comes to understanding the stuff of which we are made — how we think, choose, and act — and the direction in which we are moving as a species, this debate might be the most fruitful of our time.
Here’s wishing you, your families, and your firms a wonderful 2013, full of clear thinking, deep attention, appropriate velocity, and the joy of engaging in all the right challenges!
Two notes: (1) The absence of hyper-links in this post is intentional — read Carr’s book to find out why (not a permanent practice, just a nod on my part). (2) This is not a PR-driven post. I don’t know the author or his publicists.
UPDATE – click on ‘comments’ below to get a broader perspective and more detailed response from Elizabeth Helfant (@ehelfant). Elizabeth’s expertise is in instructional technology (check out her bio here) and she’s more deeply versed than most of us. Please add your thoughts as well… Thanks – JB.