Could more information mean less knowledge?

I just read Nicholas Carr’s latest book, The Shallows – What the internet is doing to your brain. In it he takes you through the history of media, beginning with the earliest scribes – when words ran together because that’s how we talked. Spaces were added after people started reading to themselves to improve cognition. Each advance has altered how we consume media – and changed our brains in the process. The internet today, because of the endless labyrinth of links, clips, and sheer volume of content, has reduced our ability to focus for extended periods of time. In fact, Carr admits it’s made it hard for him to read books – and many other literary types experience this as well. In fact, we don’t read anymore – we scan looking for the key points and move on once we get them.

I do it. You’re likely skipping through this text, looking at the bold before deciding whether to read more. Being a voracious consumer of information, the noise in my head often becomes deafening and I’ve started pruning the blogs I read and things I focus on. Whenever I find myself clicking without focus, I snap out of it and go back to my list of action items to keep me grounded. Otherwise productivity plummets and I fall off the info hamster wheel dizzy.

Spread too thin and you don’t add value to others or yourselves. You simply consume information. What good is that? I’m not advocating ┬ábecoming narrow-minded – it’s always beneficial to read subjects outside of your core interests to be well-rounded – but just be aware of whether or not you’re putting your new-found knowledge to use. Does it enhance your life? Does allow you to add value to others? Or just add clutter. I ask these questions both when consuming and creating.

Three key thoughts stood out for me:

  1. More information can mean less knowledge – we’re not going deep, nor synthesizing what we read. He notes how researchers today tend to cite fewer and more recent sources rather than going deep. And stop more quickly when they’ve found the prevailing opinion rather than forming their own conclusions. No longer to we peruse stacks of books in the library and happen upon a long forgotten passage that adds dimension to our thoughts. The connections formed between thoughts may be weaker.
  2. Our brains become calmer and sharper in quiet rural setting versus the city. Your brain relaxes when not being constantly bombarded. I find this true for me, sometimes thinking most clearly when I’m on a walk away from the computer. In fact, simply looking at images affects us: people looking at nature scenes could exert more control over their attention than when looking at busy urban scenes.
  3. The more distracted we are the less empathy and compassion we have for others. The net reduces are ability to contemplate, changing the depth of our emotions and thoughts. There’s concern we’ll lose touch with our human selves at some point. This goes to the heart of effective communication – at home and at work. When we’re not fully present we’re not able to form and maintain strong connections – and have difficulty building meaningful relationships as we skip along the surface.

This is not a call to go backwards. We never will. I certainly don’t want to give up my access to the connectivity the net offers before me. But I want to manage it rather than have it manage me. It’s important to be aware of how the manner in which we gain information and consume media physically alters how we process and communicate and form relationships. And the more distracted we all become, the harder it’s going to be to get others’ attention. Shouting louder from the mountain top isn’t going to work, either. We can only process so much at a time, and we’re currently being taxed to the max.

My takeaway? Carve out time away from technology. Find your solitude. Be present with those you’re with face to face. And listen with intention. Pay attention to emotions – what others might be feeling as well as yourself. You’ll think more clearly. Your brain will thank and reward you. Communication will be more constructive. Wait. Communication might just happen.

Just like the slow food movement, maybe it’s time for the slow info movement.

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