The Internet Helps Us to Be Smarter – A Reply to Nicholas Carr

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

A couple days ago (June 8), Claude Almansi posted a comment in our ETC listserv, inviting us to submit articles on the “furious* debate going on in the Media Ecology Association mailing list around the new(?) The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains book by Nicholas Carr, of ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ fame.” I poked around in the links she provided and decided to share my two cents.

I haven’t read The Shallows, but from the articles I’ve read, the assumptions underlying Carr’s views seem to be: (1) human beings are prone to distraction and the internet exacerbates the problem and (2) unitasking is healthy and multitasking is not.

The problem with these assumptions is that they oversimplify the thinking-learning process. Distraction is a facet of our ability to multitask, and as such, it can be both good and bad. It’s great to be able to concentrate on the road while driving, but it’s critical for us to be able to react immediately to a car that swerves, without warning, into our lane. This ability to focus on and respond to more than one thing at a time is essential for survival and for thinking. In this case, knowing where the other cars are at all times will determine whether we can safely slow down, speed up, or swerve into the next lane.

I teach writing as a process, and the one truth about the process is that it’s multitasking. The writer cannot afford to focus solely on the text where the cursor is blinking on the screen. S/he must be able to also focus on the context of the word in the sentence, the sentence in the paragraph, and the paragraph in the essay. In short, she must be able to see the parts and the whole as well as the interactions among the different elements while keying in text. And every decision at the point of the cursor impacts the whole so that the entirety is constantly changing, evolving.

This is the writing process — a recursive, dynamic, multitasking activity. Text generation is just the tip of the iceberg. Other tasks that we don’t see include finding, assessing, storing, monitoring, and inserting information from a wide range of media, both virtual and real world. And all of this is taking place as the writer focuses on the blinking cursor.

However, as in all else, there is a point of diminishing returns where a distraction does more harm than good, thwarting the writing process. But this point is variable, and most writers will learn to recognize the boundaries that work for them.

In the process of writing, I find that I need to take a quick break two or three times an hour. I’ll leave the desk for a coffee refill, check my email, wander over to an online forum, call a friend, listen to music with headphones, etc. These are refreshing and stave off fatigue. I return to the writing with renewed energy.

I find that unitasking such as listening to music, with headphones and my eyes closed, is relaxing. I’m able to shut out everything but the music.

But unitasking may not be appropriate for activities such as the creation of new knowledge. For complex work, multitasking is a given. The individual must be able to concentrate on a vast number of variables, simultaneously, and she must be able to shift her focus among information that’s in flux.

From this view of multitasking, the internet is an invaluable tool. We can use it to reflect and facilitate the way our minds work, to help us locate, manage, use, and create an infinte array of information in a world that’s constantly changing.

* Claude Almansi, on 11 June 2010, replied: “Errh, re ‘furious debate’ in my e-mail you quote, Jim: I meant ‘fierce’ – ‘furious’ is a Frenchism I would have avoided if I had multitasked with online or print dictionaries before sending that e-mail ;-)”

4 Responses

  1. Jim’s example of writing as a multitasking activity shows us that we all must multitask to accomplish our work or goals daily.

    Research suggests that the younger generation, touted as great multitaskers because of their immersion in electronic media, multitasks no more or less than their predecessors. All people can multitask and their abilities to do so vary from individual to individual.

    As Jim suggests, multitasking is essential to the survival of the species. It is not “bad.”

    As for the Internet, it’s not a distraction in the sense that I understand the word. It’s more of a diversion that can take you away from your task. (Of course, it can also be a resource to aid in completing tasks.) It can be a virtual walk in the woods that can refresh your mind, or, if extended too long, can thwart timely completion of tasks.

    I tend toward the opinion that too many people are too involved in technology-enhanced small talk. It began with cell phones being used while driving — constantly. It extended quickly to texting and tweeting and so on. I suspect that these activities fuel the multitasking image we’re discussing.

    Maybe we should have more woods in which to walk.

  2. Errh, re “furious debate” in my e-mail you quote, Jim: I meant “fierce” – “furious” is a Frenchism I would have avoided if I had multitasked with online or print dictionaries before sending that e-mail ;-)


  3. Claude, thanks for the correction! Is “furious” another example of the mayhem that U.S. English speakers commit on imports from other languages? LOL! -Jim S

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