Rediscovering the Depths


A book I read recently confirmed for me a growing hunch: that all the information the internet puts instantly at our disposal is making us stupider. All those arcane things it once took a sleuth or a scholar or an archaeologists to scare up – the whereabouts of some long-faded starlet, the distance from one edge of the Andromeda galaxy to the other, the ancient alchemist's potion for transmuting base metal to gold, or whatever – is just a key-stroke away. Google is the new Oracle of Delphi, at none of the cost. Wikipedia is our generation's guru on the mountaintop, only you can get there and back in the time it takes to sip your coffee. 
The internet makes us all know-it-alls. Instant experts. It is an ocean of knowledge distilled at the tap of a mouse. No longer does one need to invest the slow labor of painstaking study. No longer must one accumulate a body of knowledge from books and lectures, from travels and long meandering conversations: you can conjure it all up as fast as you can think it up. Imagine a question, any question, and your search engine starts offering answers before you've even typed the whole thing in. 
But there's a downside. An obvious one is that we now know many things but none of them well. All the deep and intricate connective tissue between bits of knowledge is missing. Our heads become as dishevelled as the drawer you have in your kitchen, cluttered with everything from cake candles to glue sticks to keys for cars you no longer own, to that pair of 3-D glasses you forgot to throw in the bin as you exited the theatre. There's no organizing principle to any of it, no coherence. It's random. 
But it's worse than that. The internet is playing havoc with our brains. It is altering the way we think. 
It's messing with our heads.
Oh, the book – I almost forgot. It's called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Carr documents at great length recent studies in neurology – the science of how the brain works – that show conclusively that prolonged exposure to the internet erodes our capacity for what he calls deep thinking. In a word, we lose the point. We distract easily. We have little patience or ability to follow an argument much past its first turn. The internet is making us more alert but less attentive. We're becoming like skittish hares or does, quick to pick up on every last little thing, every noise and motion, but slow to stare long and hard at any one thing. And we forget information as fast we gather it.
Reading Carr's books, his descriptions of our jittery addiction to the cyberworld and our diminishing capacity to actually read and talk, was like looking in the mirror. That's me, I kept thinking. 
And then I'd check my email.
I read the book a month ago, when I first landed here in Wales. When I read it, I was a case in point: it was hard for me to stick with Carr's complex argument, to wade through his long chapters, to sift through his reams of data. But after a month in a secluded valley, and reading more than a dozen books in that time, and with a testy and pokey internet connection that has seriously curbed my appetite for being online, there is growing room inside my head, and growing order. 
One of the distinctions Carr makes repeatedly is between attentiveness and alertness. Alertness is a heightened state of distraction: everything pulls us. Attentiveness is a deepened state of focus: one thing holds us. 
God gave us the capacity for both, and both have their uses. But worship and the pursuit of holiness calls for the latter. These things require sustained attentiveness. They demand a long obedience in the same direction.
That's worth turning the internet off for.

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9 thoughts on “Rediscovering the Depths

  1. I've heard of Carr's book, but I've been too distracted to read it… I've sensed the truth of what you are saying and I've wondered at my ridiculous addiction to the world wide web. I think beyond gathering information, which I do enjoy, I'm afraid of missing out on the party by turning off my connection. However, as I process the truth God is teaching me I find myself longing more for deep, unhurried conversation with others, face to face. And yet I find it to be rare and elusive. The tension between the two is constant for me. I appreciate your timely reminder to attend.

    • Hi, Beck.
      Yeah, it's wild to think that 10-15 years ago. most of us were happily and productively existing without cell phones and facebook. 

  2. Mark, what’s really distracting is that picture of you sitting in 'the sun' reading a book. When can we come? By the way, I enjoyed your last article; just too jealous to respond.
    Honestly when you get to be my age, you’ll be thankful for the distraction…ha! You are right though; I know that to be true of many and of course studies have already been done on that subject, which support your argument.  I think if we ask God to point us in the right direction for growth and use the internet as a tool for deep thinking we’ll keep it all in perspective.
    I believe you are also right about your theory regarding worship and the pursuit of holiness requiring attentiveness. One thing I do to help me stay attentive is to prayer journal. In writing out my prayers I am focused and think more deeply about my conversations with God. For me this is the most rewarding time in the day; it gets my day going in the right direction and keeps me going throughout the day. Another thing I do is to find worthy blog sites like yours to get fed. I love the fact that I can also share with others what I have learned and what I am learning.  Here’s another trick, harder for you and others of course but for me this tip is easy: I limit myself (mostly) to morning and evening blogging. Most times blogging on the sites I blog on also lead me into my quiet time with the Lord. Sometimes they become my quiet time and thoughts from others become the thoughts God has wanted me to digest throughout the day.
    So, thank you for your persistence, even when you don’t always get a response; no response doesn’t always indicate that someone hasn’t read and considered and is still processing what you have written.
    Have a good day out there in the sun. Send a little bit our way okay.

  3. I am so glad Robert Isbister introduced me to your blog.  They must miss you in Duncan.  Google has made my life much easier in my ability to do research that would have been impossible a few years ago but I agree totally with your assessment of what it does to our ability to think over longer more complex issues.  I still read books by the score but read more current stuff on the internet now.  Synthesizing what I learn is a challange which I never thought of as being related to source like this.  Thank you.

  4. Splendid! This post reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with some peers, wherein I defended the art of reading entire books, processing the information, and gleaning the worthwhile "gold in the deep," as opposed to scouring the internet hours per day and filling up on shallow soundbytes… Your admonition that worship and the pursuit of holiness require "sustained attentiveness" and "demand a long obedience in the same direction" was superb!
    Also, your latest book, 'Your Church is too Safe,' spoke to my heart in a grandly profound manner, serving to confirm so much that our Lord God is "saying to the Church" worldwide. I lead a discipleship ministry and your insight has been a tremendous encouragement to me! And for the record, it was your book title and the personally familiar Acts 17:6 reference that grabbed me!!! Thank you for the blessing…
    God bless and Godspeed!

  5. I receive your blogs, and often read the ones that apply for that time in my life. This one, Listen has made me zirleae that I need to say thank you. I, am a psychologist. I have two degrees in Psych and have studied at the best, and I can confidently say, hardest University in London. My education is extensive, and I thought it would solve so many of my problems. Of course, my expectations, led me down the wrong road. I’ve recently had a crisis in my life, I almost lost my marriage. Why? I couldn’t listen. Since reading your blogs, I have climbed back to my adolescence when I studied martial arts, with a very heavy emphisis on meditation, zen and awareness. When I started reading your blogs, and zirleaed I needed to reach back to my basics of understanding and calm, my life took an amazing turn for the better. Now, even though my wife and I are in the midst of immense struggle from the outside world, we know that we have each other through all and for all time. Going back to the purity of realism, patience and calm, combined with inner meditation and balance, I am whole again. I cope, help, support and can reach out to all those around me. Finally, my life is moving in the only way that brings me true happiness. THANK YOU IVAN. And, I’m still listening [] Reply:October 24th, 2011 at 9:28 pmJustin I am so delighted to hear that you made those realizations. I am happy that in some small way I am a part of your journey I wish you and your wife love, health, and happiness. Keep fighting the good fight be well my friend Ivanb4s last [type] ..[]