Wading in the Shallows

The Internet was just beginning to gain wide popularity in 1996 when I started library school.  Many wondered why I was even bothering when it was obvious that the end of the public library was near.  Why would we need books anymore when we had the Internet?  I’m happy to report that public libraries are still thriving. In fact, usage had increased nation wide.  It seems that the Internet fueled people’s hunger for information and books instead of satisfying it.

Public libraries have remained relevant because they’ve changed along with the advances in technology.  Spend some time in the Reference Department at Peachtree City Library and you’ll hear the tapping of fingers on keyboards.  Take a walk around the library and you’ll see people wearing headphones, quietly working on their laptops.

That’s why the introduction of the e-book didn’t bother me.  I viewed it as just another service we would offer, further solidifying our important place in society.  That is, until I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010).  The e-book won’t make public libraries obsolete.  Something much worse.  It has the power to change the way we think and behave – and maybe make us dumb.

This is your brain.

It all starts with something called neuroplasticity, which Carr refers to as brain plasticity.  Neuroplasticity is the changing of neurons, the organization of their networks, and their function via new experiences.

Traditional thought is that the brains of young children are more malleable, or have more plasticity, which is why they are able to learn foreign languages much easier than adults, whose brains are thought to be more “set” or hard-wired.  However, current research shows that the brains of adults are still able to create new pathways as well as darken others, depending on their use or lack thereof.

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to get sucked into the Web?  You start off scanning through an article, then jump to another page.  You might sign on to Facebook to see what’s up with your friends, only to click on a video someone has posted, which makes you think of something you wanted to “Google.”  And you’re off… Think about this term: Technology-induced ADD.  We’ll come back to that later.

I’ve always loved books.  I love reading them, of course.  But I also love the feel of the pages.  The different typesets.  The smell of the paper.  Reading a book, for me, is an experience.

I’ve seen the Kindle, and it’s nice.  No glare, easy to read type, and portability to boot.  More and more people are beginning to request downloadable e-books at the library.  I remember when we started receiving requests for downloadable audio books, and we started offering the service within a year.  E-books are coming to the library, no doubt about it.

Kindle now comes with built-in wireless Internet connectivity.  Hypertext is not far behind.  They say it will make reading more “interactive,” more “dynamic.”  We’ll be able to multitask while we read, receiving instant updates on incoming emails, chat, and news feeds.  Simon & Schuster has already begun publishing e-novels with video called “vooks.”  How will we ever be able to finish a book filled with hypertext?

Will deep reading become a thing of the past?

In The Shallows, Carr cites a group of Northwestern University professors who wrote in a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, that recent changes in our reading habits suggest the end of the “era of mass [book] reading.”  Instead the practice of deep reading will become an exercise for the dwindling elite.  Their question was would this reading class have the “power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital” or will they be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of “an increasingly arcane hobby.”

As a former English major, this worries me.  The practice of deep reading is essential to critical thinking.  Carr quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The industrial idea of efficiency poses mortal threat to the pastoral idea of meditative thought.” What will become of us?

Now let’s go back to technology-induced ADD.  Do you feel more scatter-brained today than you did, say, ten years ago?  Is it a result of your increasingly busy life, or is it the result of your changing brain?  Some studies link ADD with the overloading of the working memory part of our brains. Intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory.  This pathway is darkening as we overwork our working memory from using technology such as the Internet.  If the way we use technology has this effect on adults, what about our children whose brains are even more impressionable?

This is your brain on Google.

I’m not going to be a hypocrite and poo-poo technology.  It’s made library work easier, at least as far as information storage and retrieval is concerned.  Heck, it has given me a voice via this blog.  But where do we draw the line?

Jill Prouty

Jill is a reader, writer, and professional librarian who enjoys spending her free time with her husband of twelve years and their two sons. She has an MSLS from Clarion University of Pennsylvania and a BA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.