Is it possible to think any more?

This post is prompted by four things

1. Reading an interview with a guy called Cal Newport who’s just published a book Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.

2. Re-reading parts of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. It was published back in ancient history (2010) but remains, I think, an important exploration of what the digital age is doing to us. It remains remarkably current.

3. Trying to find space to be creative: to think about a new writing idea: to clarify the concept; to identify the audience; to articulate a compelling rationale; to plan a structure; and – finally – to begin the writing process from the starting point of a blank (yes) screen. I’m reasonably disciplined and am used to writing, but I’ve found this way harder to do than usual. Of course there could be many explanations for my brain fog (isn’t much going on in there / haven’t got much to say / add your own insult) but I wonder if its connected to Lockdown and more enforced screen time, more time indoors etc?

4. Supervising an MA dissertation on church and the digital age

Both authors above, from different angles, are saying things probably most of us are experiencing. The all-encompassing encroachment of the digital age into every area of our existence has some serious downsides. The digitalisation of life is negatively impacting our thinking, creativity, work patterns and imaginations, amongst other things.

So, yes of course we can think, but are we thinking less well, less creatively, and less imaginatively than if we were not in a state of constant distraction and information overload?

Here’s a flavour of Newport’s argument

Modern knowledge workers communicate constantly. Their days are defined by a relentless barrage of incoming messages and back-and-forth digital conversations–a state of constant, anxious chatter in which nobody can disconnect, and so nobody has the cognitive bandwidth to perform substantive work. There was a time when tools like email felt cutting edge, but a thorough review of current evidence reveals that the “hyperactive hive mind” workflow they helped create has become a productivity disaster, reducing profitability and perhaps even slowing overall economic growth. Equally worrisome, it makes us miserable. Humans are simply not wired for constant digital communication.

His book is about freedom from the tyranny of email – relegating it to be a servant of effective work practices rather than the master. He argues that a solution has to go beyond the lone individual battling against a tide of haphazard communication – there needs to be a fundamental shift in workplace culture to put email in its place.

That master-servant analogy also applies to Carr’s book, indeed he uses it early on;

The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master. p. 4.

He means by this that the net is doing something to our brains. Its fragmented, hyperlinked and confetti-type nature is fundamentally alien to the way human thinking and culture have been developed and sustained. It has pulled us into the shallows, where we are mired in distracted thought.

Add on to this other unplanned consequences of the digital age that Carr discusses:

– vast amounts of available information does not necessarily make research and writing any better or any easier

– every time we follow suggested links we follows scripts written by others, limiting intuition, creativity and accidental discovery

– long hours in the electronic world keeps us, in effect, in an ‘urban’, busy, high-stimulus environment. Overwhelming research shows that our brains relax in natural environments. Spending time in nature leads to better cognitive functioning.

– a calm, attentive mind is also more empathetic. Human relationships are complex interactions of verbal and non-verbal communication. Take out the physical leads to a loss of empathy and a dehumanisation of those we engage with online. Since 2010 when Carr wrote this, the toxicity of the internet has poisoned public debate and polarised politics.

But my main focus is distraction so I’d better get back to that! Carr writes,

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lost the thread, begin looking for something else to do. p.5

Which describes just about how I’m feeling at the moment. How about you? Does the following describe your experience?:

  • constantly connected
  • distracted
  • having multiple conversations on multiple platforms at the same time
  • spending most of the day looking at one sort of screen or another
  • feeling bombarded by images, texts, messages – many unsolicited and trivial
  • never feeling you have enough time
  • anxious if you misplace your phone and can’t rest until you have found it
  • struggling to concentrate
  • endlessly flicking over to email, news, netflix, whatsapp, FB or Twitter or Instagram
  • checking your social media accounts obsessively
  • at work feeling like you spend most of the time reacting, especially to haphazard emails
  • struggling to maintain boundaries of work and the rest of our life
  • used to read books but now find either little time or inclination to do so
  • used to read your Bible but now find either little time or inclination to do so
  • physically less active than you used to be?

If so, then you don’t need me to say there is a problem.

I’m old enough to be a digital migrant rather than a digital native. College studies and PhD research were all done ‘long-hand’. For the latter I had to travel 100 miles to the nearest university library to photocopy articles and hand write notes. I wrote it up in WordPerfect on a 386 running on MSDOS with (I think) a 256kb hard-drive and saved files on floppy disks. The internet hardly existed in any useful form. We lived in the country and had a terrible dial-up connection. No mobile phones, certainly no smartphone, no social media, no whatsapp – and not that much email.

So I had to smile reading Carr talking about what he had to do to actually write The Shallows. It’s an irony that, despite all the technological progress since the 1990s, he essentially retreated backwards to our lives in the Irish countryside pre the Web.

If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent thought? It wasn’t easy. When I began writing The Shallows … I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words … It was clear big changes were in order … I moved with my wife from a highly connected suburb of Boston to the mountains of Colorado. There was no cell phone service .. the internet arrived through a relatively poky DSL connection. I cancelled my Twitter account, put my Facebook membership on hiatus, and mothballed my blog. Most important, I throttled back on my email application … I began to keep the program closed for most of the day.

The dismantling of my online life was far from painless. For months my synapses howled for the Net fix … But in time the cravings subsided, and I found myself able to type at my keyboard for hours on end or to read through a dense academic paper without my mind wandering. Some old disused neural circuits were springing back to life … I started to feel generally calmer and more in control of my thoughts – less like a lab rat pressing a lever and more like, well, a human being. My brain could breathe again. pp.198-99.

So what to do? I could suggest to my wife that we move back to the hills of Tipperary. She may like the idea but I suspect that the internet connections are a lot better than they used to be. Smartphones ain’t going away. And Carr’s move to the wilderness isn’t the most practical solution for 99.9% of people.

To start with, on a study day I’m starting to turn off email and phone. I’m prioritising reading physical books and articles rather than a screen. I get out for a walk, preferably along or near water. And if writing, to turn off wifi so it would take a bit more of an intentional decision to open up a web browser and check the news or something else irrelevant. It’s not a quick fix but it helps. And if Lockdown eases and I get the chance, I hope to get away to a cottage for a few days and disconnect from all distractions.

How about you?