Read on paper, love better?

Five years after it was published, I finally just finished reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. It was a sobering read. Sobering in the sense that he makes the compelling case that digital media is changing us, in possibly irreversible ways. We are adapting to distraction but may be losing our ability to think deeply in exchange. What he doesn’t address as much is the anxiety that many of us feel as part of the change.

The the book is a downer in that if offers no solution. It painstakingly describes how our brains are changing, and what we are losing, but it doesn’t offer any magic bullets. This is the neurological equivalent of all those conversations we have about dying newspapers. We know that digital media is killing them, but ten years in we have no clear idea how to keep journalism alive. Digital media, it seems, puts us in a perpetual state of epiphany-delayed in whatever area of endeavor it attacks. When it comes to dealing with digital distraction I think we’re all be waiting for our epiphanies for a while.

Carr does hint briefly in the text one way to maybe think about the problem. He described experiments where people learned better when, counterintuitively, they used less-helpful software. In other words, a less helpful user interface forced users to attack problems in a way that improved both their memory retention and problem-solving schema development. Of course this flies in the face of user experience design trends, but it does make a pretty strong argument for using the Linux command line.

I read the book on paper. Specifically, I purchased it in hardcover when it came out and (finally) read it, pencil in hand, in relatively long stretches. I decided that a non-ironic reading of this book required meal-length reading, not snacking. The paper stock was heavy (and textured) and it felt good to underline interesting passages and make notes in the margins.

I finished the book and have been flipping back through it to look at my annotations. Flipping pages to find a note is less efficient than simply calling them up in a kindle, but it remains oddly gratifying. Maybe because the inefficient process of finding it reestablishes the annotation’s context in my mind. In any case, I never really look at my notes in the kindle. I don’t know why, but on that device annotations are more of a memory hole than useful repository to me. Kindle annotations seem to work like pinboard (or before it), a place to put stuff I’ll never ever look at again.

Maybe it’s just a generational thing but I like reading on paper and after reading this book I think I’ll make a point to do more of it.

On a different note, Carr briefly mentions some research by Antonio Damasio at his USC lab that suggests that the processes of empathy and compassion require slower thinking to emerge. The upshot of the research is that continuous distraction may in fact inhibit our brain’s ability to feel empathy and compassion.

I’ve commented before that I think Twitter is a medium biased toward snark and anger. It always seemed to me that 140 characters and the lack of biomimicry or other non-verbal signals made Twitter a poor medium for love. But perhaps there is even more to it. As an intrinsically distractive medium, maybe Twitter short circuits our empathy and compassion in an even more fundamental way. Maybe it, and our more distracted lives in general, are making us more mean-spirited and unable to walk in others shoes.

So, I’m going to read more books on paper and do my best to nurture empathy and compassion, even when I’m on Twitter.




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