It’s been a month and a half now since I’ve looked at the never ending stream of updates from the people I follow on Twitter or Facebook. And while I am thankful for the network of excellent educators I’ve connected with through Twitter, I came the conclusion that it wasn’t something I wanted to keep in my life anymore.
What follows is an explanation of why I’m making that decision. I’m not suggesting that everyone should make the decision. I’m also not deleting my accounts, so that I can still connect with people through both mediums. I’m also regularly checking my RSS reader and reading the many longer and more thoughtful edublogs I find there.
Last year, I became convinced I developed adult ADD. I felt like I was loosing my ability to concentrate on any one task for an extended length of time. Luckily, teaching is a job that rewards being aware of many different things at once, so it didn’t affect my job performance. There were times when it was a challenge for me to focus on extended conversations with my wife, though. I seriously considered going to see a psychiatrist and talking about going on adderall (which I, unlike many of my generation, never used recreational in high school or college).
I think a lot of the feelings I had could be attributed to the stress I was going through with a crazy-long commute, over finding a new job, and leaving a school I helped build. But despite a huge decrease in stress this fall, I didn’t feel completed normal.
The best book I read last year — and by “best” I really just mean the book that made the strongest impression on me — was The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Like most people, I had some strong intuitions about how my life and the world have been changing in response to the Internet. But I could neither put those intuitions into an argument, nor be sure that they had any basis in the first place. Carr persuasively — and with great subtlety and beauty — makes the case that it is not only the content of our thoughts that are radically altered by phones and computers, but the structure of our brains — our ability to have certain kinds of thoughts and experiences. And the kinds of thoughts and experiences at stake are those that have defined our humanity. Carr is not a proselytizer, and he is no techno-troglodyte. He is a profoundly sharp thinker and writer — equal parts journalist, psychologist, popular science writer, and philosopher. I have not only given this book to numerous friends, I actually changed my life in response to it.
In search of a potential change for the new year, I picked up The Shallows, and read it over winter break. And while I think there are some flaws in the book and its reasoning, I have to say, overall I was convinced that much of what I was feeling could be attributed to the ways in which I was using the internet in general, and Twitter in particular.
Carr accuses the Internet of “chipping away [his] capacity for concentration and contemplation” (p. 6). He described, what I found in myself when I was in the constantly updating world of Twitter:
[W]e enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards (p. 115-116).
The book references numerous studies that have huge implications for those of us who teach using the net, with this conclusion being the most startling:
Even though the World Wide Web has made hypertext commonplace, indeed ubiquitous, research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links (p. 127).
There were many points on which I disagreed with Carr. I think his criticism of reading on the Kindle is the book’s weakest section. His claim is that by turning every word into a hyperlink, e-readers encourage distracted reading, as readers can leave at any moment to look something up with the click of a button. That has not been my experience, while reading Carr on my Kindle, or any other book. If anything, my Kindle has allowed me to take on mammoth texts I never would lug with me on the NYC subway, including War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time.
Carr also fetishizes the “deep thinking” that he associates with reading, without giving enough credence to the shallow thinking that is sometimes more desirable, like when you’re teaching a room of 34 adolescents.
But despite the flaws, Carr did convince me that the amount of time I was spending on Twitter (and, to a lesser degree, Facebook) was altering my ability to focus for extended lengths of time and to do the deep contemplative thinking and non-fiction reading I would like to do more of. And that’s what I hope to be doing moving forward.