Guest Blogger | By Darlene Burningham
One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control of the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity (Carr, 2011, 220).
Many of us have heard the increasing warnings about addiction to technology and especially to cellphones. We may have also heard the advice to disconnect every once in a while and, while we know it to be sound, we might wonder if it is even possible to take a step back from where we are. The feeling of anxiety about forgetting for a moment where your phone is may come to mind. For educators, it may prompt visions of looking out across the stormy seas of the classroom and seeing eyes cast down toward a device in every seat.
As an educator, I want to know what the effects of all this technology and instant access are – because the way that I used to teach became obsolete around the same time that I became good at it, which also occurred around the same time that hand held devices became ubiquitous. Enter Nicholas Carr (2011) with The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
Carr’s poignant title highlights his main thesis that through increased dependency on screen time, our brains are forced to linger in the shallow waters of the internet, only skimming the potential of that vast informational ocean.
Those familiar with Marshall McLuhan will recognize Carr as the contemporary reincarnation of that visionary theorist. I say this because just as McLuhan’s writings warned us about how new technologies could change the way we view the world around us, Carr has taken it a step further and is prophesizing how the technologies we are creating at break-neck speeds will not only affect our worldviews but will fundamentally change the structure of the natural tool we have to formulate and understand those worldviews: our brain. Quite frankly, this book is scary because some of us, especially as parents and teachers, may wonder whether those changes may be regretfully irreversible. But it is also an important read because we may be on the brink of a new way of thinking and learning.
Key to Carr’s thesis is that daily use of the internet is being proven to change the way our brains are wired. In essence, we are trading skills that have been developed and cherished through the private and solitary effort of reading text in a linear and focused fashion for those that are fed by a steady diet of skim and scan. We are losing the ability to take in information at a slow pace, which lets us think deeply and critically and encode knowledge into long-term memory. In exchange, we are developing stronger skills in scanning and recognizing visual information and patterns in bits. However, being able to skim and scan and click on hyperlinks that lead us to more information, while seemingly useful, also distracts us from the task at hand, resulting in fractured attention. The set of skills that we are losing allowed us time and space to be reflective and the set we are gaining fragments our attention and interferes with contemplation, even though it gives us access to much more information than we have ever had. The result affects deep comprehension, encoding and critical thinking about what we learn. As Carr states, we are on the verge of becoming “mindless consumers of data” (p. 125).
The structure of the book provides us with good background. Carr first discusses the malleability of the brain and presents the history of the argument regarding nature and nurture. He then discusses how the process of reading and writing were initially unnatural acts and that distraction may actually be a natural process. He then explores how technological changes, such as the Gutenberg press and the printing of books, changed how we interacted and processed information. This led to reading becoming a more practiced and prized skill and also led us to develop a more private relationship with information. With further changes brought about by the information and technological ages, the overstimulation and fragmentation that characterizes the internet has led us away from this relationship. When we read on-screen there are hyperlinks, running bands of text, and flashing click-bait to draw us away from the main body of text. This is changing our brains. Carr cites many studies that range from brain science to social sciences to support his claims and I found many of them interesting in terms of my observations as an educator over the past decade or so.
However, this book also made me question whether we can or even should fight the changes Carr warns us of. The technology of books (as archaic as it now seems) wrought changes that were seen as dangerous. Socrates, as Carr cites felt that “a dependence on the technology of the alphabet [would] alter a person’s mind, and not for the better” (p. 55). As history has proven, we eventually adapted to the alphabet and even came to prize it. Who is to say whether or not we are just on the cusp of another such change and our efforts in teaching and learning must now focus on how to best use not only the new technologies but the new brains.
Essentially, Carr is asking that we consider what will be lost if we give ourselves over completely to continued treading of shallow waters of the net. I would say that based on the changes I’ve seen over the 20 years I’ve been teaching, we are already there and are most likely not able to go back. Thus, we will have to choose how we move forward. From an educational perspective, this raises a lot of questions about how and what we continue to teach and how the system we do it in is structured. Do we embrace whole-heartedly the changes in the brain and completely revamp our teaching and learning strategies, or do we find a way to re-instate and hold onto the quietness and calm of the mind that dove into the printed text?
There are no answers as of yet but the conversation has started and there is still hope that we won’t drown in shallow waters.
Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. NewYork: W. W. Norton. (2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction finalist)
About the Contributor
Darlene Burningham (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been teaching high school for almost 20 years. She is currently living in Eastern Ontario and teaching at a small rural high school. She began the MAIS degree at Athabasca in 2014 and is now working on the capstone course. Her final project intends to investigate the relationships between technology, innovation and student motivation. Outside of teaching, her passions include acrylic painting and cooking. When she is not able to travel she dreams about it, especially about going to places that have the sun and the ocean.
Except otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.