The Shallows

As revolutionary as it may be, the Net is best understood as the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind.

Last week I finished the book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr.

It brought a few things in to clarity for me, both with respect to my own ability to focus and dive deep into content, as well as how my audience is being impacted as well.

Have you thought that it’s more difficult to concentrate on lengthier materials in recent years? Is your attention span short and getting shorter? Does this (~850 word) article already look too long?

Blame the internet.

That the internet is literally changing our brains is perhaps not much of a surprise.

The way we consume information has changed dramatically in recent years. The most telling: our ability to go deep — be it read thoroughly and think deeply about the articles that cross our paths, or, ironically, reading a book from start to finish — is diminishing. The internet is seen as a major cause.

Naturally it’s not the technology, but rather how it’s being used that’s leading us down this path. There’s a strong argument that the way the internet being abused by marketers and others all vying for our attention is at fault.

We’ve turned into skimmers; reading headlines and not much more before feeling like we’ve consumed some amount of information and moving on. Even if we do click through we skim articles rather than actually reading them. The rise of listicles is just one symptom that feeds this habit — people quickly read the bullets but not the content.

It’d be easy to consider this all a bad thing. But the book also draws some interesting comparisons with prior technological advances and how they, too, quite literally, changed how we think and act and interact with one another. Everything from hieroglyphics to the printing press and more have all caused dramatic change to the human brain and our way of life. Some of it good, some of it perhaps not, but all of it somewhat inevitable.

The net is no different. We have at our fingertips more information than ever before, yet with the same number of hours in a day. The transition to information consumers that skim is perhaps the only way to even begin to make sense of the volume of words being thrown at us daily. We know that should we need more information on a particular topic, it’s just a click away — and skimming helps us discover more places to click, without needing to remember or process all the information deeply.

The one thing we have that those impacted by previous change did not is insight: we can see this happening, and perhaps take intentional action as a result.

As consumers of information we can choose (or not) to explicitly continue to practice deep dive mental activity so as not to have the skill diminish. Actually reading a book, for example, as opposed to skimming articles online. As one example I’ve avoided fiction for the past few years preferring to spend my limited reading time on non-fiction business and self-improvement topics. Fiction, on the other hand feels like it might more easily exercise the deep focus that results from getting lost in a good book. Similarly, I’m of the opinion that meditation might also contribute to better control of how we spend our attention.

As creators of information we need to understand that this is something that our markets are going through, whether we like it or not. I’m not saying that we all need to start writing only 200 word quick-skim articles and listicles in order to be read, but the fact is we’re going to have to work even harder to get our audiences to allocate their precious time to our efforts. Your book, your deep insightful article, your lengthy blog post are all explicitly competing with thin quickly-consumed headlines and short short short content pieces. We’re competing with content that can be “completely” consumed (meaning skimmed) by reading a headline and some notes on Facebook without clicking any further.

There’s also an interesting intersection between the topic and the ADD/ADHD arena. While it’s mentioned only in passing I found myself thinking repeatedly of the similarities.

Now, as friends well-versed in the subject have pointed out, ADD is being over-diagnosed as a fad and under-diagnosed in people that could benefit from the diagnosis. I find myself wondering if the changes in our brains that result from the way information is being consumed is muddying the diagnostic waters as well as causing ADD-like symptoms in people that don’t actually have it.

Interestingly the book is already 8 years old, and yet speaks volumes to where we are today, particularly within the political landscape.