Distracting Ourselves to Death

I recently listened to a podcast from The White Horse Inn titled “Scatterbrained.” As a side note, I have found The White Horse Inn to be an excellent source for thought-provoking podcasts, interviews, and commentary on American culture. So  I’d highly recommend checking their website out.

Anyways…the podcast was inspired by a new book by Nicolas Carr called “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” I see this whole topic as a sequel to Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death which dealt with the Age of Television. Now we’re post-TV and living in a society shaped by the Internet Revolution.  The whole point of Postman, and the current discussions of the internet, is not so much the content but the medium. It isn’t so much what we’re absorbing but how we are absorbing it. I think this is a significant distinction to make because the internet represents access to knowledge that was unavailable to previous generations. It is an incredible resource for learning new things, and the tendency is to react to these discussions with something like, “oh, so you don’t want people to be smart!” So the point isn’t that the knowledge is harmful, but the way the knowledge is transmitted has an impact on our minds and ways of thinking. And I’m not in any way a Luddite. The abundance of technological devices I own disprove that accusation. I very much appreciate technology and the benefits of this Internet Age.

Postman’s argument was that TV is so fast-paced, we lose the ability to concentrate and think about one subject for a prolonged time. We lose any sense of coherency because everything becomes these hurried blips on a screen, be it a commercial or news report. TV is a medium of entertainment. It can do nothing else. It is meant to pull on our emotions, not our brains. We feel, not think, when we watch TV. Every station wants to be more outrageous, more comedic, more emotional, more exciting, than the last one because the viewer has the freedom to start flipping channels the moment boredom threatens.

If this was the case in the Age of TV, how much more so is it true in the Internet Age? We don’t just have a few channels to choose from, we have the entire world wide web to entertain us. The sheer amount of content is overwhelming and the typical response is to make our processing of the information more efficient, i.e., skimming articles, speed-reading, googling a book to find a synopsis instead of taking the time to actually read the entire book. We have the world at our fingertips and how can our finite minds fathom it? I know from personal experience how easy it is to say that it is better to do some web-browsing, skimming of blog posts, glancing at the news headlines, etc…to get a tiny bit of everything, instead of focusing my mind on one specific topic or site to study in more depth. It is easy to feel educated and well-rounded by these brief forays into so many areas of life.

And it is so much easier to multi-task now too! I’m probably one of the most guiltiest when it comes to multi-tasking. I function fine with 6-10 tabs open on my browser, from email to facebook to blogs to research sites to whatever other random things I might find. Thanks to my fairly fast computer (although I’m told it could be much faster if I bought some new internal device for it) I’m able to switch back and forth between these tabs with no trouble. And since I have multiple email accounts, I’m routinely checking mail on my ipod while reading an article on my macbook…while music is playing from my ipad in the background. You get the point. We all do it to some extent or another. And I don’t think it is necessarily wrong. But I do find it troubling to realize how much harder it is for me to concentrate on one task now. For instance, I remember my “Russian” summer when I read several Russian novels (August 1914, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, etc…) for some crazy reason. Not so crazy, I guess, because they are amazing books. It was just really intense. Anyways, I can remember, very vividly, sitting outside on a lovely summer day and literally reading for hours on end. No interruptions. Just reading. Old Russian novels.

And then in the last year or so I’ve realized how easily I’m distracted while reading. It takes a lot of work to keep focused. My mind has become fragmented; it is harder to hold a train of thought long enough to thoroughly consider any idea or topic. The White Horse Inn podcast referenced English professors who could no longer get their students to read books. And even teachers were realizing that they were becoming unable to concentrate on a book long enough to finish it. Instead of plodding through a heavy, long work, people are doing searches in Google Books to find any passages relevant to what they need. So I think this is definitely a disturbing trend. I’m not saying it is wrong to practice this, but it is disturbing when it changes our ways of thinking to the extent that we are unable to use our minds in any other way. I don’t want to be controlled by my environment, I want to determine who I am.

Christians are called to be in this world but not of this world. How will we become sanctified if our very mode of thinking becomes weaker and influenced by the world? The Scriptures are not amusing, entertaining, or merely thought-provoking soundbites that we can pick up and leave off whenever we please. Much of the New Testament, especially the writings of Paul, are long, deep, and sometimes complex, logical arguments for specific doctrines. It takes mental concentration to follow the sequence of thinking. We will lose the riches of the Scriptures and the foundational expositions of sound doctrine if we are unable to concentrate long enough to follow and comprehend the texts.

So what do we do?

I think that we need to firstly be aware of this shift in our minds. Recognize how our thinking is impacted by the technology of these times. Stop long enough to realize what you’re doing when you’re multi-tasking on several devices.

And then we need to take conscious steps to develop our ability to concentrate and focus. Every few weeks I like to do a “reading marathon” where I try to read an entire book in one day. I don’t do this too often as I can get burned out and overwhelmed, but for me it is a good test of my mental endurance and concentration. And even when I’m just going to read for a few minutes, I will sometimes walk away from my computer, leave my ipod & ipad behind, and go to a quiet place without any technological interruptions. Can I read for 30 minutes without checking facebook? I hope so.

I was recently given some advice from a friend regarding my choice of reading material: Read the Puritans. Their logic and thoroughness is admirable and far above any modern literature. Their language and vocabulary is also an excellent example far above any contemporary writings. From my little experience reading Puritans, I can attest to the benefits of persevering through the sometimes heavy style of writing. It is worth it. And even reading classics like Dickens and Dostoevsky challenge my mind and help strengthen my ability to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Because in the end it won’t be the people who can skim 20 blog posts while texting and emailing who will be remembered, it will be the people who can keep their eyes and mind focused on their goal no matter what the distractions of the world.

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