Nicholas Carr RYOL Lecture Well Attended & Received

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As reported here previously, on February 17th, 2012, the FHL Foundation brought Nicholas Carr—author of the 2010 book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains—to Albuquerque to speak as a part of the Foundation’s Roll Your Own Lecture (RYOL) Series. This lecture benefitted St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, which received a grant check for $1,250. For more on the Foundation’s RYOL Lecture Series, click on the link above. (For those of you receiving this post by email, you’ll have to come over to our blog site to get more information.) The lecture was sold out at 25 participants. We have launched a Zoomerang survey to collect feedback from lecture participants. This survey will close on March 2nd, 2012. I’ll cover those results in a separate post. Today I’d like to briefly summarize Mr. Carr’s lecture.

Mr. Carr started out by telling us that mobile screen technologies, such as smartphones (like the Apple iPhone) and tablet computers (like the Apple iPad), have dramatically changed the social scene. He mentioned that children are gaining access to these mobile screen technologies at earlier and earlier ages. Witness the fact that currently there is a TV commercial for a cell phone company’s unlimited data plan that features a child of five or six years of age ogling an Apple iPhone. The tagline for this commercial implies that a data plan should not limit a child’s ability to explore the (digital) world.

Mr. Carr was quick to point out that screen technologies are nothing new and have been around since the television hit  the popular scene back in the 1950s and 60s. Here’s the big difference: TV screen time was segregated from the rest of our time whereas mobile screens are now with us every waking moment, effectively 24/7. Very much like an attachment relationship, we were able to regulate our relationship with fixed screens: how much we approached them, spent time with them, and distanced ourselves from them. With mobile screen technologies, the relationship is intrusive, we can’t turn away, we can’t separate, they demand that we pay attention to them 24/7. And, again, children are being subjected to these potentially intrusive relationships at earlier and earlier ages.

Because these mobile technologies are with us in an ever-present state, Mr. Carr argues that, increasingly, it is hard for us to appropriately focus our attention. This may say something about the current ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) epidemic that confronts us. We are constantly checking for email, text, or social media messages. And when we do read our mobile screens (and even computer screens for that matter), we are bombarded with hyperlinks, advertising, and all manner of moving images. As talked about in The Shallows, it is like we are lab rats in a bizarre S-R (stimulus and response) experiment where the behavioral researchers are offering up a multitude of paddles each of which can release its own form of digital reward. In such an experiment we are constantly asking ourselves (mostly unconsciously) such questions as, “What’s behind that hyperlink,” or “What’s that advertiser trying to sell me,” or even “Has anyone ‘liked’ me in the last five minutes.”

Mr. Carr gives us this “take home” statement (and I paraphrase): “Brain science tells us that how we use tools structures how we think.” Mr. Carr uses the term “intellectual technologies.” In essence, intellectual technologies play a large role in structuring our thinking behaviors. As an example, before the advent of the map, we navigated the world directly using our senses. The map radically changed the way we approached and navigated the world. The map allowed us to approach and navigate the world using abstractions and conventions (like north is up). Again, early in life we experience attachment figures directly through our senses. Over time (if all goes well) we begin to relate to attachment figures (like mother) both directly as well as abstractly. John Bowlby argued that with development comes our ability to use Inner Working Models or Maps to navigate the social world. Maps and abstract thinking go hand-in-hand. Here’s another example that Mr. Carr gave us.

Mr. Carr tells us that before the advent of the clock, time was a natural organic experience. We would get up with the sun and sleep with the darkness. There was a natural cyclical flow through each day, each month, each year. Farmers would plant seed in the spring and harvest crops in the fall. The clock changed all that. Now, time consisted of a series of discrete units: hours, minutes, seconds, etc. According to Mr. Carr, as urban centers shot up, there was a need to synchronize activities so that everything ran smoothly, like “clockwork.” Mr. Carr makes the same observation that Fauconnier and Turner make in their book The Way We Think—Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexity: the clock introduces us to a very powerful metaphor, one that holds that the experience of life can be framed as a long chain of cause and effect events. The clock metaphor is extremely powerful because its widespread acceptance led directly to the development of scientific thinking with its focus on measurement, being accurate, being precise, direct cause and effect, etc.

Mr. Carr uses another interesting term: intellectual ethic. Simply, new technologies, which include new metaphors, encourage some ways of thinking while at the same time de-emphasizing others. I don’t mean to be glib but if you believe that the earth is at the center of the universe (as most did before the work of Copernicus back in the 16th century), then your intellectual ethic centers on the idea that the sun moves around the earth. It would take a huge paradigm shift to “see” differently. Mr. Carr suggests that we are going through a “shift in seeing” that is every bit as powerful and dramatic as putting the sun at the center of our universe. Simply, new technologies—like mobile screen technologies—are allowing us to put self at the center of our universe. How is it that we are able to make these huge shifts in thinking? Here’s what Mr. Carr told us.

“Neuroplasticity is the new explanatory framework,” Mr. Carr tells us. The old thinking held that once the brain was formed, that’s it, it was set in stone. The new framework of neuroplasticity (which I touch on in my post of February 9th, 2012) holds that the brain can change and adapt over the course of one’s lifetime. As Mr. Carr puts it (paraphrasing again), “Habits as adults can change our brains; changes in our environment can change our brains.” Heck, attachment researchers now believe that early attachment relationships play a large role in wiring the brain. Equally, attachment relationships as adults, say, with a spouse, partner, or even psychotherapist, can in essence rewire the brain (especially in cases where the early wiring was “faulty” in some way).

Mr. Carr tells us that because of neuroplasticity the brain can adapt quickly to a changing environment. “The brain makes no value judgement as it adapts, it just adapts,” Mr. Carr allows. As a result, though, the brain can set up shop in less sophisticated areas, say, the mid-brain regions where a focus on the object world rules, and eschew the more sophisticated regions, say, the upper-brain where a focus on the mental world wins the day.

Mr. Carr asks us to reflect on the following pointed question: “What is the Internet’s intellectual ethic?” Here’s how Mr. Carr answers this question. The Internet…

  • …is information rich
  • …is all about connectivity and multiplicity
  • …operates at an incredibly high velocity
  • …encourages us to quickly jump from stimulus to stimulus
  • …throws streams of sensory information at us—text, sound, video, etc.
  • …affects our experience of time and space

Mr. Carr gives us this “bottom line” (again paraphrasing): “The Internet encourages ‘bottom-up thinking’—thinking focused on the environment, and thinking that controls us.” In contrast, the Internet does not encourage “top-down thinking” or thinking that is focused on mental worlds, and thinking that we control. Executive Functions (EF) such as planning, time travel, delaying gratification, focusing attention, shifting attention, perspective taking, etc., are examples of top-down thinking. As Mr. Carr told us, most top-down thinking takes place in the prefrontal cortex. For more on EF, see my post series wherein I summarize neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg’s book entitled The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World.

At this point Mr. Carr mentions a German study that reveals that a person spends on average 10 or less seconds scanning a web page. Other research suggests that the average teenager sends over 3,000 text messages per month. That works out to one text message every six minutes during each waking hour. “It’s only getting worse,“ Mr. Carr warns.

Here’s where, in my opinion, Mr. Carr gets to the core of the paradigm shift that surrounds us: the trend is away from a “page” form of information and toward a “stream” form of information. We don’t think about it but a “page” is a form of intellectual technology. So too such things as punctuation, paragraphs, chapters, headings, indices, etc. (pulling from Neil Postman’s 1993 book Technopoly—The Surrender of Culture to Technology). These intellectual technologies were brought in, and they can be taken out. I’m reminded of a comic I saw recently where a student is taking part in a Texting Bee and asks the judges to use the text message word “2morrow” in an incomplete sentence. Again, intellectual technologies come in, and they can go out. However, as social scientists—whether social worker, psychotherapist, medical professional, or even philanthropist—it is our job to ask: “How will changes in intellectual technologies change how we approach intellectual ethics?” When I talked to Mr. Carr before his lecture, he told me that we often embrace new technology before we have a chance to assess its implications in terms of intellectual ethics. Often once we do reflect on the implications of new technologies, it’s too late.

Mr. Carr describes a fascinating eye tracking study, a study where eye movements are tracked in response to a given stimulus. People were given a web page to read, and, according to eye tracking patterns, we read web pages using an F pattern: lots of focused attention at the top which quickly tappers off. “We get the gist of the page and then we leave,” Mr. Carr tells us. He continues, “This F pattern is designed for quick, efficient retrieval of information. It is very different from how we typically read a page in a book or long article.”

So, what’s the big deal? So what if we approach text as if on a “search and rescue mission” as opposed to part of a long-term, intimate relationship? Mr. Carr reminds us that there are two fundamentally different forms of memory: short term memory and long term memory. Studies suggest that we can keep at best two to four pieces of information in short term memory. “We think with short term memory; it’s the content of one’s consciousness,” says Mr. Carr. He continues, “We have to somehow transfer information from short term memory over to long term memory.” It is long term memory that fundamentally gives us our sense of self, a stable self across space and time. In the 2000 movie Memento, the main charcter (played by Guy Pearce) had huge problems with short term memory. More than likely he suffered from some type of damage to the Hippocampus. But the character had no problem with long term memory or even a sense of self. Mr. Carr tells us that memory must be “consolidated,” that is to say, moved from short term to long term. Our sense of time, context, wisdom, a “big picture” if you will, comes from our ability to form long term memories. Mr. Carr gives us this “showstopper” statement (and I paraphrase): “When you are constantly in a distracted, unreflective state, you simply cannot engage in memory consolidation.” According to Mr. Carr, it is memory consolidation that allows us to form mental models or mental schemas, that is to say, mental maps of the world. And, again, John Bowlby argued that it is early safe and secure attachment relationships (if all goes well) that allow us to form Inner Working Models or schemas. It would appear that safe and secure attachment relationships (e.g., deep relationships) allow us to engage in memory consolidation.

So, what are the Internet’s benefits? Here’s Mr. Carr’s list. The Internet facilitates…

  • …gathering information
  • …collabroation
  • …problem-solving
  • …certain forms of expression (like this blog)

But what are we giving up? Here’s Mr. Carr’s list. The Internet discourages…

  • …deep creativity
  • …counterintuitive ideas
  • …personal knowledge building
  • …solitary contemplation and reflection
  • …cultural richness (art, literature, theater, science, etc.)

By way of wrapping up, Mr. Carr points out that the average person now spends 8.5 hours a day looking at some type of screen. In contrast, they spend about 20 minutes reading a page from a book, article, newspaper, etc. “With printed page information, there’s nothing else going on, no hypertext links, no way to check email, no way to update your Facebook page,” Mr Carr points out. Mr. Carr ends with this profound thought (and I paraphrase): “The biggest downside to the Internet? It essentially prevents us from figuring out how to be bored.”

During the Q&A session, the audience wanted to know what to do about the Internet. Do we simply turn it off and turn into Luddites? Mr. Carr recommended a 2010 book by William Powers entitled Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. As it turns out, I’ve read Hamlet’s Blackberry. Let me leave you with some practical suggestions from Powers’ book. If you have suggestions, please tell us about them by leaving a comment:

  • Investigate the new Slow Life Movement—slow food; slow, deliberate parenting; slow, unplugged travel, etc.
  • Renew your interest in deep reading. Powers writes, “Deep, private reading and thought have begun to feel subversive.”
  • Simply gain some distance by going out in nature, away from technology.
  • Focus on one idea or person while tuning out the rest of the world.
  • Express nostalgia for “old” technologies: keep a paper-based journal, play a vinyl record, play a board game, fire up an old computer in the attic, type a letter using a typewriter, watch a black and white TV, etc.
  • Rituals help with memory consolidation. Positive rituals help develop body memory (e.g., procedural memory, the memory you principally use to drive a car). Honor the rituals you have and try to start new ones. Personally, I set up the coffee maker each night so that it brews first thing in the morning. My father used to do the same before he passed. Hearing that perking sound and smelling that coffee aroma can send me to any number of long term memories.
  • Create a “Walden Zone”—“A place where the main event is nature itself,” quoting Powers. A treehouse is the ultimate Walden Zone. Ride the quite car on a commuter train. Go to an offline coffee shop. Volunteer for jury duty (think about it).
  • Have a disconnect party where you collect all screen devices at the door.
  • Be like Winnicott or Bowlby. Powers quotes developmental psychologist Donald Winnicott when he says, “A baby learns to be alone not through true isolation [which is traumatic] but by being ‘alone’ in the presence of its mother.”