The Shallows

All four of my grandparents can quote an exceptional amount of the Bible. I’ve sat across the table from my grandmother at breakfast, my mind hardly functioning in the early hours, and listened to her seamlessly incorporate scriptures into her morning conversation. The sheer volume of King James text branded onto their aged minds is astounding to me. It seems like infinitely more than I’ll ever know.

That’s not, of course, for lack of trying. I want that knowledge, believe me. I am tempted at times to shrug off my ignorance to my age—give it some time and I too will know the Bible backwards and forwards—but I don’t think that’s the problem. I don’t see myself on that trajectory. There’s also the possibility that hour-for-hour, they have spent more time in study, and while that might be true for some of them, I don’t think it holds for their whole generation. There is something else setting them apart.

It’s their brains.

Not that my grandparents’ brains came pre-installed with 90% of the King James Bible, but I think their brains soaked it up in an astonishing way. And, again, it’s not that their brains are freaks of nature as compared to specifically my brain—it’s their generation’s compared to ours.

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In 2013, Twitter made a small change to their interface, one you probably noticed at the time if you were on Twitter but quickly forgot about. Instead of abstracting images in their newsfeed via links or thumbnails, they began to actually display images inline along with 140 character text tweets.

This was, in many ways, an insignificant—if not, obvious—change for the social media company. No one wants to click a link just to see a picture. However, this change both represents and adds to a greater cultural shift towards immediacy. This change, present in countless environments, is all the more pronounced in a medium made potent by its clever and laconic content.

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Last Sunday, some friends from church invited me and Lauren over for dinner. We had roast—the best roast I’ve ever had—and we chatted at some length after the plates were cleared. Eventually, we drifted to the subject of education. Our hostess, herself a teacher, told us about the present debate in schools regarding the teaching of cursive. She told us that many curriculums are dropping cursive as it becomes increasingly obsolete. All of us at the table sympathized with this, yet we briefly lamented the skill lost.

This is just one facet of a topic anyone old enough to be reading my blog has surely discussed—there is always a feeling in every generation that the new generations are losing something the previous had. It ranges from tools as tangible as maps, moveable parts, and printed books to the more abstract: spatial reasoning, problem solving, and spelling. 

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In 2011, Nicholas Carr published a book—The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In it, he discusses the intellectual and cultural consequences of a society progressively more dependent on instantaneous, electronic information and media. He says it’s making us dumb.

A lot of the time, it feels like he’s right. Clearly, humanity has more information and wisdom at its fingertips than ever before in history, but we’ve gained it at the expense of retention and deliberation.

At one point, tweets stood on an equal platform, all vying for attention, and the difference was only made by their wit. Now, a picture captures the eyes.

I honestly can’t remember the conclusion of Carr’s book, but I’ll give my own. I do not plan on giving up the Internet or most modern conveniences. I also do not think that humanity is doomed to stupidity. However, I can only hold these two truths simultaneously if I will the second—if I make the conscious effort to enrich my brain. The Information Age will not do this for us, the market will not auto-adjust for this. If we want to reap the benefits of immediate knowledge, we must also make the steps and the sacrifices that will mold our brains, keep us sharp, and make the next generation better than the last.

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