Scatterbrain

I’ve always been a Scatterbrain. My memory is lousy, I have to write everything down and often I forget even that. My mind is always jumping ahead of the current situation – that’s super sometimes, but often it’s more than a little distracting. Today, when I was supposed to do two other things, I stumbled over an article…

I swear, I read the whole thing and my mind almost didn’t jump. I remember where it jumped to along the way, because due to the theme of the article, I made it my business to take note of my mind-jumps.

I was visiting this blog, which is a bi-product of some homework I’ve done for my course at uni. The blogger linked to the article in an ambiguous way, which made me click it. And once I’d seen the headline, I just had to read it. The fact that it’s in one of my all time favourite magazines, The Atlantic, of course made it even more palatable. The writer is Nicolas Carr. He has a blog, which after a cursory glance looks interesting, but demanding. The article is called Is Google Making us Stupid?

Here’s a few excerpts:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

But every new technology has had an effect on our brain, as noted by Socrates:

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

In the end paragraph he returns to Kubrick’s 2001, which he quoted in the opening paragraph:

Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

I don’t have such a gloomy view of my own thinking as Nicolas Carr. I acknowledge the disadvantages, but think that there must be some great advantages in being able to think “multilaterally” rather than “unilaterally”?

Back to where my mind jumped: At one point it jumped to a piece of Internet lore, which I’ve returned to many times: The Last Lecture by Randy Pauch, a university professor, who after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, gave a farewell lecture about grasping life’s opportunities, even in the face of death:

If any of you have not yet sat through it, you really must. He has a wonderful lecture for us all. It has been viewed 7 1/2 million times on Youtube! Why did my mind jump to that in the middle of this article? I don’t know!

Also, at the mention of Socrates, I though about something I’ve recently read by Aristotle (don’t worry, it was in connection with an essay for uni): “A speech (or document or whatever) consists of three things, the speaker, the subject which is treated in the speech, and the hearer to whom the speech is addressed” – logos, pathos & ethos. I thought of that because isn’t it so, that sometimes, you’re just very, very far from being “the intended audience” of a text – it’s either above you, beneath you or entirely irrelevant to you! When I read stuff like that I get distracted very easily… I’m afraid it happens rather frequently with academic papers for my courses. Sometimes I even think they don’t want me to read it. And certainly not to enjoy reading it.

And twice I suddenly remembered what it was, I’d set out to do, when I settled at the computer. Wrote it down – must do it when I’ve finished this post ;-)

And in the middle of the article I jumped to read about the writer. I knew I’d looked him up before, but had forgotten. I don’t think that’s something Google has done to my brain. I’m afraid I was like that years before the Internet entered my life (and that was in 1995, if anybody wants to know…).

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