You Can’t Read This Book!

Nicholas Carr bets you’re not even capable of reading his new, 224-page book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. That’s because after what has now been years of daily, repetitive, consumption of short blasts of hyper-linked information, your brain has actually changed shape and function rendering you unable to concentrate enough to digest the contents of a book, long article, essay or poem.

The implications are staggering to anyone who seeks to ignite ideas.

Most of the information on which we snack as we flit from link-to-link and text-to-text in the point-and-click world in which we live simply doesn’t stay with us. It finds a place in our short-term or working memory only long enough for it to be useful in the moment, and then it disappears. Unlike those things we savor, repeat and ruminate, such digital snippets just evaporate. They are not stored. They are never again available to us to throw a spark somewhere in our imaginations. (cf, “Cultivate Copiousness,” blogpost, October 1, 2009)

A mental life spent entirely on the fly is ultimately not equipped to be creative.

Carr cites volumes of empirical studies, including one by Jordan Grafman of the National Institute of Neurological disorders who, “explains that the constant shifting of our attention when we’re online may make our brains more nimble when it comes to multi-tasking, but improving our ability to multi-task actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively.”

He’s right. Even I who am known to you as the resident bookworm have of late found it much more difficult to maintain acuity of attention to a book, a long article or a lengthy white paper, and now I know why. Carr writes, “In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler.”

Can you do it? Can you read this book, or still read any book? I challenge you to read The Shallows. In the meantime, I’m off to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, just to prove to myself that I still can.

Rick Segal, Worldwide President and Chief Practice Officer at b2b agency, gyro