Flowers From Algernon
By Gene Wilburn
“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” ~ Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
I grinned recently at a cartoon of an elderly gentleman standing at the base of his stairway wondering if he had just come down the stairs or if he was about to go upstairs to get something. Welcome to my world: the world of cognitive gaps. Mix natural absent-mindedness with an aging brain and daily life becomes an adventure. It’s only through the grace of automated bank withdrawals that I’m still deemed credit worthy.
Sometimes cognitive gaps are embarrassing. About every two years or so I take a plane flight to the US to visit family. I always book an early morning flight and, due to customs protocols, have to arrive at the airport so early the ticket booths aren’t yet open. I’m not a morning person, so these dawn-tinged adventures require Olympic-level efforts from me, and to have it all shattered when the person I present my ticket to says, “Mr. Wilburn, I’m sorry, but your flight is booked for tomorrow,” is disheartening.
What worries me more is that my ability to concentrate on things is lessening. I’ve been living in the fast lane of Information Tech for years and years and despite the tsunami of new “stuff” coming down the pipe all the time, I think it was a kind of specialized narrowcasting of technical information that I had evolved, mentally, to swim in comfortably. I always kept an outside focus on things that interested me, such as books, music, and photography, but my main focus was tech.
Then retirement, and a gradual drift from computer services creator and provider, to computer services user. From techie to user — I’m left with a vague sense of having been demoted. Not that I miss the fast lane. I still write occasional snippets of code, but for the most part I’ve embraced my new overlords and have plugged myself into the Internet, like a bee into the hive mind.
In this world of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and other social media and news aggregators, information comes shooting at us as Carr said, “in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” It’s intense. And surely it must have consequences for the brain.
Our brains are wondrously adaptable and able to rewire themselves according to need, and as our needs shifts from deep reading to shallow reading, which they have to do to keep up with all the incoming, our brains compensate, perhaps, by borrowing from our deep-reading skills to adjust to our need to devour info in wide swaths. We adapt to quick, intermittent bursts of concentration rather than long sessions of concentration. In photographic terms, we’ve switched from macro lenses to wide angle.
I greatly admire people, like my wife Marion, who can concentrate on something for hours at a time. As I’m sweeping through the Internet with my net cast wide for nuggets of beauty, humour, and maybe even wisdom, she delves deep into genealogical data searching for clues that might provide links to her family tree. To the point where her hot drink grows cold because she forgets it’s there. I’m no longer capable of that kind of concentration.
It feels like a seismic shift, this dwindling ability to study anything hard and long, and a departure from the past when one sat in a favourite nook with a favourite book, savouring the thoughts and words of a voice from another time or place, perhaps in another language. It’s cutting us off from the past. While some people still read Jane Austen, and a handful read Dickens, there are few left who read translations of Homer or Marcus Aurelius, and fewer still who can read them in Greek or Latin.
The main culprit is the sheer volume of contemporary information we must process to adapt to living in an electronic age. We’re like baleen whales sieving for krill. To be a citizen of the Internet one is required to digest all sorts of facts and factoids and issues about everything under the sun and beyond. It’s enough to drive Southern evangelists to the mythic comfort of the Christian Bible (though even fewer of them appear to enjoy the rolling passages and magisterial tones of the King James translation).
Given that much of contemporary information feels like “a tedious argument of insidious intent,” we need more buffer zones — places or activities that shield us, at least temporarily, from the onslaught. Playing a musical instrument, cooking, drawing, having a picnic, walking in the park, meditating, reading for pleasure – all these things help, as long as you’re not on your cell phone.
Undoubtedly my brain is not as agile as it once was — not that I had any intention to read Spencer’s Faerie Queen — but as we head for what Nicolas Carr calls “the Shallows,” it’s apparent to me that age is not the only factor in my gentle demise. The zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, is reductive. Newsbytes, tweets, and click-bait headlines are conditioning us to view the world kaleidoscopically, reacting with “Oooh” or “Oh no” at each passing spark. And it’s not merely reductive. It’s addictive. It may even work as a form of mind control. Clearly there are implications.