We Are All Doomed: The Internet Is Blowing Chunks

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.

Fast-Food Information
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.

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8 thoughts on “We Are All Doomed: The Internet Is Blowing Chunks

  1. Molly Ringwald is now a writer?

    Oh, drat- I skimmed and my brain just leaped to that assumption…

    This is a potential problem, Tom. Back in February I attended an all-day lecture by my former Dean, a Swedish scientist with an astonishingly brilliant mind. I ran into the excellent dental residents that I know from my residency program; I still teach there part time.

    Having a long attention span myself, and being relieved for the day of any of the all-too-frequent interruptions and shiftings of thought that I am normally exposed to while at my practice, I laser-focused on Dr. Lindhe all day long. Lunch, hungry as I was, was just an annoying break in the flow of beautiful information.

    But the residents fiddled with their laptops at times and even texted a bit.

    To be fair, they are only a short time removed from sitting through lectures for between 5 and 8 hours a day. They also haven’t faced interruptions and shiftings in thought as often as I have- they just started practice. Yet I still wonder- will people be able to pay attention for long periods of time in the near future? Or will this ability become a rare attribute, a lost art?

    Keep reading novels. That should help a bit.

  2. I’m reading “Two Years Before the Mast” (about 400 pgs, plus another 75 pgs of notes and glossary terms). The author just discovered a copy of Paul Clifford (the Bulwer novel that inspired the contest) and eagerly devours it! Then, he writes an entire paragraph about how much he enjoyed it.

    Carr may (sadly) be right. I find myself that my attention span is shorter. I’m getting impatient with older movies that have less action and more talking.

    However, I do have a tall stack of novels to read. Maybe that will help. 🙂

  3. Jodi, funny you mention movies, because I love old movies, but I’ve found a bit more impatience in myself lately watching them—I hate to think that this skittishness is an actual syndrome. I used to love to read BIG novels (War and Peace, Ulysses), but it’s been a while, and I now gravitate toward smaller ones. I want to read David Wallace’s Infinite Jest, but at over 1,000 pages, I’m intimidated rather than inspired. Sigh.

  4. Rick, I wonder what it’s like to get a higher education these days, with the astonishing amount of distractions students face (and encourage). Twitter, Facebook, iPhones—and I thought smoking pot was a problem. I imagine that educators have to alter conventional reading lists and assignments to bow to the reality of shorter attention spans. But of course, that “reality” is a construct of our times, and bowing to it might just accelerate the decline of focus and concentration.

    Force them to read Moby Dick! (Or at least make them carry it around in their backpacks all semester.)

  5. Perhaps I have more of a delayed attention span?

    With the written or spoken word, it takes me some time to get fully tuned-in, but once that happens, I’m not easily distracted.

    Case in point: I was really paying attention by the time you got to that part about lapping-and-sucking gerbil-y kisses.

    My thanks to Joel C. for sending me here. Repeated exposures to your luxurious prose might just be the antidote to what ails my writing.

  6. Annie, there is nothing like wet gerbil kisses to focus the attention. I do still get in that timeless tunnel, when I’m really in the flow of what I’m reading, but it’s seeming to happen less and less. A sweet solace though when it does.

    I dunno about my luxurious prose—sometimes you need high boots and a cowcatcher to slog through it. But thanks for stopping by!

  7. All this (not that the gerbil kissing, cage sucking is your prose, but I found it here!) AND Joel & Sue claim you are mad as a hatter. (Oh, yes they do.)

    Consider me signed up.

    As a writer and a teacher, I am passionately interested in the physical changes taking place in our brains as a result of conveniently chunked missives. Might I suggest a look at Kieran Egan’s work on Imaginative Education, especially the cultural recapitulation aspect of it.

    My hope is that our chunk-friendly brains will become connoisseurs of the form and each chunk will build a startling and emotionally meaningful image of such exquisit beauty that we will want more. In the wanting more, we will be willing to sit and focus for prose that is akin to poetry in its economy of words and vividness.

    What do you think? Any hope of such a thing?

  8. Caitlyn, isn’t that a case of the mad hat (or at least the annoyed one) calling the hatter mad? But I am honored to be in such antic company. Your thought that one could use the chunks to amass a whole of worthy parts is an intriguing one: I like to think of it as a small amount of concentratedly good chocolate being so much better than a bar of forgettable gunk. Economy of words and vividness is surely a good thing, and doesn’t presage the death of the long form, with its threaded development, either.

    Thanks for making me think of all this in a different way.

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