Saturday, January 28, 2012

Information Overload Syndrome

This video, while humorous, looks at the phenomenon of information overload in our daily lives. Fifteen years into the Internet (plus or minus for most of us), the problem is quite topical.

Nicholas Carr treats the same question in last year's Pulitzer-prize nominated book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, arguing from a battery of neurological studies that our browsing habits and related digital media consumption prevent us from learning in any deep or meaningful way. For instance, the inherent difficulty of "deep reading"-- that is, immersed, focused and reflective reading -- in the digital world is a consequence of the kinetic nature of the internet, and prevents information from going from the short-term to the long-term portions of our brains. Our tendency to always go from one interesting bit to another actually forms the neurological pathways that control how we think. It tends to inhibit learning, and ultimately, Carr even argues, suppresses our capacity to attain wisdom. The Shallows began as a celebrated and controversial 2008 cover story for The Atlantic Monthly, called "Is Google Making us Stupid?". The book is well worth reading for anyone concerned, in a Marshall McLuhan vein, about the effects of the digital media upon the cognitive, and ultimately spiritual dimensions of our consciousness. From the dust jacket:

Building on insights from Plato to McLuhan, Carr makes a convincing case that every information technology carries an intellectual ethic--a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence. He explains how the printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. In stark contrast, the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources. Its ethic is that of the industrialist, an ethic of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption--and now the Net is remaking us in its own image. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

Highly recommended.


  1. do you have a 15 sec summary?

  2. HI John,
    This is definitely something I should read once the dissertation is done. I'm wondering, does Carr deal at all with the difference between those who read books and the internet and those who read the internet almost exclusively?

    In other words, can we innoculate ourselves from the neurological effects of the internet if we read books regularly? Will I retain more of what I read shallowly (on the web) if I also practice deep reading at other times?


  3. Hi John,
    I'd be very interested in the answer to the question above as I don't have time to read the book. ;) But with three little kids, who can blame me?


  4. Hi Brett and Andrea:

    Yes, how to buck the trend. The simple answer is simply to read as much as possible, if one want to be fluent in deep reading. The main point of most of Carr's citations of neurological theory is to show that basically "we become what we contemplate" (Plato), that the neural pathways in our brains are formed by HOW we are learning just as much as "what" we are learning. So if I watch a lot of television, I will have a "television-like" brain: passive, needing strong audio-visual stimulation, etc. Likewise, too much casual Internet use will make our thoughts superficial and eclectic. So the key, I think, is discernment (as always) and intentionality. If I limit using the Internet to serving pre-determined needs and goals, good. If I keep up the habit of reading books, even better. I suspect a little book reading will go a long way.