I read with interest (and fear and loathing) a CNET review of Nick Carr’s recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. I’ll do here exactly what Mr. Carr treats as one of the disquieting subjects of his work: I’ll distill his book in a few sentences. In essence, he posits that the always-on, ever-spilling-over information font of the Internet is actually changing the nature of our brains. His position is that this next-next-next ad infinitum serving of info appetizers is resulting in a attenuation of the contemplative process, a wall to the deeper mulling over subject or sphere (and being able to distinguish which is important and which is simply “now”), and potentially the loss of our ability to reflect at a sustained level.
That made me consider how much advice on presenting information on the Net, particularly for copywriters, emphatically states that you must “chunk” information: render it in small, easily digestible paragraphs, preferably those not burdened with compound or complex sentences. Before anyone protests, of course I recognize that making any parallel between a broad—even philosophical—reading of how we now apprehend the world and how copywriters (with their loathsome goals of extolling benefits and persuading buyers) work their words might seem strained.
But it’s a personal issue for me, because I am both a marketing copywriter and a fiction writer, and though I can readily compartmentalize the two, they still share an information DNA: communicating, spreading ideas, making sparks in the head. If Mr. Carr is right (and I’ve only read the review, not the book, so I’m stretching here), the Netheads of this world, a world that’s ever-expanding, will no longer have the hunger for—or even the skill to fully interpret—deep, thoughtful works.
For some reason, reading the Carr piece made me think of Crime and Punishment, how the central character, Raskolnikov, frets, fusses and agonizes over the killing of the pawnbroker, and later, has his psyche roil while undergoing the ferret-like questioning of the investigator Porfiry. Raskolnikov’s unease skirts near madness, and it’s a cumulative state, a long building of narrative tension and revelation. Would today’s readers just want the Cliff Notes: “Poor student goes crazy after killing pawnbroker and goes to prison to rot.”? That chunking summary is a dry cracker in the mouth of a sensuous, wine-mad, multi-course meal of a novel, a thousand spices and ten-story conversations.
There was a fabulous article in the New York Times yesterday titled “Tuna’s End,” an elegiac piece about the survival (dubious) of the “wild ocean” and some of its top-of-the-chain denizens (here, bluefin tuna) though our depredations. It’s a nicely written and sharply compelling piece, but quite long. I found myself skimming, looking for the high points. And going back and forth to my email and the project I was working on in between the skimmings. Even being aware that I was giving short shrift to the article didn’t stop me from being pulled in multiple directions. This is your brain on chunking.
We Did Survive Elvis
I worry that Carr’s right, that our scanning for immediacy, our appetites stimulated to hunger for the new, will result in an ever-more shallow analysis that is self-reinforcing. I worry about distinguishing the important from the trivial, if I can only absorb either in chunks. But then I think I’m carrying the same hoary “The End Is Nigh” sign that my parents carried because of Elvis in the 50s, and that their parents carried because of jitterbugging in the 30s and that Fred and Wilma Flintstone carried because the latest stone wheels had sidewalls.
Ahh, well. I hope richer thought will survive, amidst the ephemera. I was heartened to read Molly Ringle’s recent grand prize winning entry for the 2010 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, awarded for the composition of the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels:
“For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s gerbil.”
Molly doesn’t believe in that chunking stuff; had she sallied forth and written the full novel, I’d judge it would be 1,456 pages of delicious prose. Heck, Raskolnikov might have even made it in there too.
PS I know you skimmed this post, but I forgive you. I did too.