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There’s a book a friend of mine introduced me to a little while back. Sadly, I still haven’t read it, but “The Shallows” by Nickolas Carr certainly sparked an interesting conversation between us.

There may be a fundamental problem with how people communicate, how things are written, and most especially how the internet “filter” has changed the way we consume information.

If, for example, a layman reads an article on a new scientific experiment, perhaps the higgs boson, how much is that person actually understanding about that topic? In the case of a new Physics discovery, most of us admit ignorance. We’re very limited in what we understand about it, and we’re going to leave it up to the experts. Yet why stop there?

Whenever we read any blog post, news article, editorial, or even novel or textbook, we still are missing vast fields of knowledge and perspectives the writer of the work had, as well as other readers of it. Communication then, is within the recipient as well as the producer. In the blend of associations, understandings and paradigms both parties contribute. In order to communicate a point of view with precision  non-ambiguous, detailed, and coherent information has be presented. Yet this type of information takes much effort to digest, not to even touch on the idea that you may want to present purposefully more ambiguous information, for literary effect.

Human brains enjoy taking in slightly new, but very agreeable, clear, understandable statements. This has to do with dopamine pathways in the brain, which is our ‘reward chemical’. When we trace over information we already know, our brains stimulate the same neural loops, and little or no new dopamine is released (Boredom). When we trace over information we don’t understand, it means the associations within our brain are not linking up and therefore our neural loops are incoherent, broken down (Frustration). We hit a happy medium, called Flow, when we are learning new information that connects to old information, forming a new and exciting neural loop in the brain, which releases dopamine.   Because the internet lets us move about so quickly, finding these ‘connect the dot’ pieces of information, we’ll generally sift through the less agreeable and less understandable notions and focus on the ones left that put us into Flow. We are constantly weaving for ourselves nets of comfortable, safe, and simple information.

Imagine, for example, a person encounters a wholly new field of knowledge. Maybe a difficult philosophical theory, such as Hegel’s, or a complex mathematical construct, such as multi-variable calculus. That person may be missing many of the in between steps needed to understand what is being presented, and because  of this, completely glaze over the amazingly complex and powerful content in front of them.

Carr’s book has a simple but striking argument: The Internet isn’t  transforming us into hubs of all the infinite, vast information of the cosmos — it is transforming us into shallow readers. The associations within our brains are becoming one homogeneous vat of the most agreeable information to all people. Meme’s flash like lightning through our favorite series of tubes, tweets that flitter along, copying each other’s birdsong, and status update after status update that really update no one at all. To change this course, we must redouble our efforts into absorbing the specialized, the ambiguous, the gritty, the controversial, and the supposedly incomprehensible. Information which our brains might not be happy to digest right away, but once all intermediary steps are taken, bring us to whole new worlds. We will need to read long and difficult books as well as listen to huge discourses on arcane sounding topics if we ever want to truly understand new concepts about our world.

When individuals live through different lives, gain different methodological training, they begin to bring new perspectives and read information in new and unique ways. This diversity is critical if we want to cultivate the next wave of innovators, and therefore we must take precautions with our information diet. The internet has undoubtedly become a place of great value, but that does not mean it came without its own unique pitfalls.

In the book “How Proust can change your life” by Alain De Botton, there is a wonderful insight into how a genius commits to their work. Botton explains that Proust almost never argued or discussed his literary works in progress with his friends. Proust felt that the constraints of conversation, the to and fro of speaking, led to a confined, unedited space in which his true ideas, his deepest thoughts, could simply never be expressed. It is only within the refined, delicately constructed space of writing that his most cherished thoughts could blossom. He avoided talking to his friends about his work not because he was humble, nor because he deemed them unintelligent, but simply because he would be wholly unable to express what it is he wanted to express in a medium not his own.

We must now consider too, when we read a newspaper article, an exert of a famous novel, — a simple blog post, exactly what it is we are ingesting? How much are we filling in the gaps with our own misconceptions, those holes left by the poor, congested writer?

Are we becoming shallow readers?


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