Live Well, Do Good

Deepening Our Thinking in the Internet Age: Ten Tips

February 20, 2012 - David McConkey

In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr invites us to consider the negative side of the Internet. Carr presents a great survey of the history of media from the introduction of writing; the musings of thinkers from Socrates to Marshall McLuhan; and also the latest in brain research.

His conclusion? Our surfing of the Internet (we usually stay only seconds on any one web page) is making our thinking more shallow. We are thinking less deeply and less creatively, and we should be concerned.

As well, the Internet absorbs the time we used to spend doing other activities. And many of those other activities – such as reading, taking a walk, or simply daydreaming – develop and strengthen our minds. 

Carr also notes the dominance of Google. That company has an interest in keeping us jumping from link to link, because it makes its money from advertising. (Google once tested 41 shades of blue to find out which one people clicked on most.) While taking advantage of the Internet, we can look for ways to mitigate its drawbacks.

Deepening Our Thinking in the Internet Age: Ten Tips

1.  Be Aware
The issue: the Internet itself is a force to be understood. This is independent of the content. As McLuhan said, The medium is the message. The Internet, as a medium, is exerting a powerful effect on its users, not all of it good. Think about this and try to observe yourself while online. Also, recognize the importance of non-Internet and non-screen activities.

2.  Look Away 

When on the Internet, look away from the clutter, linger on one web page; resist hopping from link to link. (I admit that I have mixed feelings here as Internet content producers like myself often depend on advertising and affiliate revenue to support our work – which we get by visitors jumping around!)

3.  Check E-Mail Less

The practice of checking e-mail less frequently greatly reduces the distractions of being online. As Timothy Ferriss says in The 4-Hour Workweek, e-mail is “the greatest single interruption in the modern world.” 

As a bonus, checking e-mail less frequently can make you much more efficient. A specific suggestion: rather than checking your e-mail first thing in the morning, instead do what you have identified as being important on your "To Do" list. (See point # 4.) 

The simple act of not checking your e-mail first thing in the day, “seems small but has an enormous effect,” Ferriss says. “This habit alone can change your life.”

4.  Make “To Do” Lists 

Identify the tasks that are important for your life, and then do them. Avoid the time-consuming vortex of just mindlessly going on the Internet.

5.  Read More 

The Internet has taken away the time we used to spend reading newspapers, magazines, and books. Reclaim some time for reading printed materials, especially longer articles and books. “Deep reading,” as Carr points out, is often associated with “deep thinking.” 

(Parents: read to your children, encourage them to read, and set an example of reading for enjoyment.)

6.  Value Quiet Time 

The Internet, as Carr says, is a “permanent state of distractedness.” Quiet time spent away from the Internet is beneficial – whether it is intentional meditation or reflection, walking or other physical activity, or just “doing nothing.” (Include some time unconnected to any wires or devices for really uncluttered time.) Such quiet times can be a chance to consolidate our thoughts, consider new approaches, and improve our thinking in general.

7.  Take Time for Nature 

Being out-of-doors, especially in a natural setting, can be refreshing for mind and body. (Carr refers to a study that found that even looking at pictures of nature is of value!)  

8.  Get Physically Active 

Getting up out of our chairs and away from our computer and TV screens is good for our physical, mental, and intellectual health.

9.  Consider Memorization 

Memorization is an important tool for brain exercise. One way could be to revive the once common practice of memorizing a poem or other literary passage for personal fulfillment. Another could be to recognize memorization as one of the advantages of learning another language or other new skill.

10.  Appreciate Slowness

This is similar to the notion of “slow food” as opposed to “fast food.” There are advantages to sometimes doing things the slow (in this case, non-Internet) way.

Research something in a book, play “Solitaire” with a real deck of cards, read a real newspaper or magazine, check out a local library or book store, browse in a real “brick and mortar” store, go for a walk, instead of sending an e-mail - make a phone call or  meet a friend for an actual conversation over a drink or a coffee. 

Join a real organization (such as a service or book club); belong to more than just Internet social networks.

Sometimes, write by hand; research indicates that handwriting activates more of the brain than using a keyboard, including areas responsible for thinking and memory.

Send a paper letter to a politician (this is also much more effective than signing an online petition). 

In short, get out of your chair (or set aside your hand-held device). Do more in the actual – instead of the virtual – world.  

* * * 

See also:

"The Shallows" on Amazon.com   (on Amazon.ca)

Surfing World Wide Web Breeds Shallow Thinking 

The Medium is the Message? 

Review: The 4-Hour Workweek

Exploring What's Lost in a Connected World

Six Words To Describe A Life?

This Book is Overdue!  (A Review)



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