Yesterday, I was talking about the book, The Shallows, What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which cites studies showing our brain structure is changing, we are losing our ability to concentrate deeply in favor of processing more immediate stimulus. It is a disturbing notion, to some, that media can change us. While we do have a choice to turn off the computer and fight this trend, it is not difficult to notice the effects the internet has on us. I have an example and don’t mind being the test dummy:
It used to be that quoting Shakespeare, or Emerson, or Mark Twain meant, oh, I don’t know, you might have actually read their work. Come out with a Shakespeare quote and it meant that somewhere between Latin and Arithmetic class, you had been forced to memorize sonnets by an ancient teacher who might have actually gone to school with Shakespeare. In fact, if you came out with a Shakespeare quote, but didn’t know what work it came from, you were considered to be something of a Poser. Nothing said “Public School” to an Ivy Leaguer like pretending to know the classics.
Today, I am refining such posing to fine art. On my Facebook fan page, I’ll find a quote regarding creativity, passion, persistence or some such blather. Have I drawn on my extensive knowledge of the classics? Hell no. I have drawn on one of my Droid Apps. Then, proving that I have perfected shallowness to an art form, I pair the quote with a lyric or saying from pop culture that comes to mind. It is a little witty, somewhat nostalgic and it seems to amuse my readers. It leads to some witty, amusing and somewhat nostalgic conversations, if not a little, uh, shallow.
Let’s face it, no one wants to go into a 4 paragraph discussion of why J Geil’s Band’s, “Love Stinks” is germane to a quote from Romeo and Juliet. No; pithy and witty will do just fine thank you, we have websites to visit, and other quotes for our own fan page. We are busy.
I’m typing this while streaming Tony Kornheiser’s radio show, the stock market ticker is silently scrolling on CNBC, solitaire is open on my other computer, my computers check 4 different E Mail accounts every minute and I have the Facebook tab open in another browser window. You can tell me I am using my brain, only differently, and I can’t argue with you. I am definitely ALERT but I don’t think we should confuse my current brain state with one of deep concentration.
I still retain the ability to concentrate deeply, but it takes special effort, I need to get quiet, turn off the computer and, yet, still I am easily distracted. When it comes to creativity; pithy and witty do not make the varsity. Creativity is about solving problems, finding new relationships between things people have missed, and, in my case, explaining fairly complex issues in an easy to understand manner. That’s a little harder than it looks and it requires a different set of brain cells than surfing the web or playing Madden on the Playstation. Being creative means you actually create something.
The question raised in the Shallows is, will anyone read my work? Not that I am in their league, but will anyone read Emerson, Twain, or Shakespeare? Will our knowledge of Plato be reduced to bumper sticker sized quotes that are no more relevant than Far Side quotes? Will we still have the ability to go deep? If people create, will anyone notice? (Ok, put it on a Droid App and they’ll notice, I’m learning).
My Grandparents memorized in school, they learned by “rote”. Till she died, my Grandmother could quote poems she learned in grade school. They had analog clocks, no television and only heard music when it was played by someone holding an instrument. They had less to interfere with their concentration, my children have rarely studied without 4 other forms of stimulus open. (Although my son will go in his room, with the door shut, to read in perfect silence), the difference in how we learn in just three generations is astounding.
Does being familiar with Hamlet quotes equal understanding Hamlet? Does it matter? I think it does, but I am a Grandfather now myself. Where do we go from here? Will our grandchildren be educated by the characters in video games, will they learn Shakespeare from their Droid Apps? Will they be the equivalent of chimps in suits? Ok, maybe chimps in suits is a stretch, but being alert is not the same thing as being smart.
We can’t even agree on how to properly measure intelligence, so does any of this matter? If someone can find happiness and meaning in their life, does it matter if they don’t care to lose themselves in a book? I’m searching the Droid App Store for the answer.