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Crowd Control: Managing Electronic Distraction: A Review Article

Gregory Edward Reynolds

Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers. New York: Harper Collins, 2010, xv + 267 pages, $24.99.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010, 276 pages, $26.95.

Amid the plethora of recent books expressing concerns about the effects of the new media environment,[1] I have chosen two that stand out for their balance and astuteness. Many Christians, of course, will succumb to the temptation to write these off as mere handwringing—the predictable reaction of an older, literate generation. As Americans we are excessively touchy about having our inventions criticized. We are eager to appreciate and applaud the benefits, but loathe to admit the liabilities, of the latest technology. At worst it may be thought that only turf-protecting Luddites, curmudgeons, and cultural elitists engage in such folly. But Carr and Powers are what I would call sympathetic critics, sophisticated users of the technology they critique, and so eminently worth listening to.

The dispersion of concentration and attachment is a major theme of both books and thus something to consider in our own media lives. There are so many things vying for our attention. Long before the advent of the Internet, electronic devices have been distracting us. The telegraph and the newspaper designed around it have filled our lives with disconnected and contextless information. The telephone is a constant source of interruption, even with the antidote of the voice mail. Radio and television have been drawing us randomly into other worlds for several generations now. Electronic distraction—I'm tempted just now to check my email, but closed the program so as not to be distracted—has spawned the new work ethic of multitasking, a not so subtle form of denial of an addiction. Perhaps one of the worst effects is ADD and its ilk (although this is surely not the only cause). As both authors assert, attentiveness is not natural, and so must be cultivated—one great argument for the benefit of reading a book or codex. Since inattentiveness is our natural tendency, it is simply stimulated by the connectedness of the electronic environment. It tends to spread us over thin surfaces, lacking profundity and undermining thoughtfulness—mental peripatetics. The ubiquity of electronic screens and sounds threatens to drown out all serious thought. For church officers and Christians in general this is an ocean that requires serious navigation skills. As sociologist Jacque Ellul once sagely observed, "people manipulated by propaganda become increasingly impervious to spiritual realities."[2]

A central strength of both books is their rejection of what C. S. Lewis called "chronological snobbism," by using the history of technology and its effects to help us understand our relationship to it in the present. Powers does this more than Carr. Surrounded by information, we are glued to the present and thus unlikely to learn much from the past, whose lessons are invaluable, especially on matters of our inventions.

Both books also interact with the latest findings of neuroscience, which is presently all the rage. But Carr does this much more than Powers, and he cautions us that the evidence is in constant flux. Yet, while we must not overestimate the "findings" of this nascent field of research, some important evidence is already available to take into consideration as we craft ways of navigating the digital environment. It is worthy of noting that Maryanne Wolf writes blurbs for both books. She is a professor of child development at Tufts University, and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Both books are also clearly attuned to the media ecology of Marshall McLuhan and his ilk. The authors have really understood this critical perspective. This is the source of their greatest strength and value.

Powers: From Socrates to McLuhan

The intriguing title Hamlet's Blackberry serves as both metaphor and technological reality. We learn that Hamlet did have a kind of Elizabethan Blackberry. The human penchant for recording ideas and information is as old as cuneiform. In Act I of The Tragedy of Hamlet, when Hamlet encounters the ghost he reacts oddly to the phantom's haunting greeting by saying,

Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe.

Hamlet is reflecting on his own mind, his skull, the "distracted globe," with not a little punning about Shakespeare's famous theatre and the very world itself (143). Then he proposes to solve his distractedness by "wiping away all trivial fond records" from the "table" of his memory (144). But, what is a "table"? It turns out, according to Powers, to be a "piece of technology"—an early handheld device. "Table books" or "writing tables"—we would call them tablets—were pocket-sized almanacs with specially coated blank pages that could be erased with a sponge (145-46); a simple way to help bring order to one's globe. But then I've begun this fascinating tale of technology in the middle.

Powers sets the stage for his proposed digital philosophy by warning us that digital crowding is robbing us of depth (4). He immerses us in this danger in the first four chapters, beginning with chapter 1 "Busy, Very Busy: In a Digital World, Where's the Depth?" (9-19). In sum, the efficiency of connectedness is "eliminating the gaps, when we should be creating them" (31). The gaps are the mental resting spots between tasks, suited for reflection and contemplation—the Sabbaths of the mind, if you will. So, asks Powers, does the "hyperconnected life" take us where we want to go? (32). The "digital maximalists" expound a particular philosophy of technology when they insist that the more connected you are the better off, and the less connected the worse off (35). The balance between privacy and participation is sacrificed to the "deeply compelling force" of digital connectedness (43). Powers reflects anecdotally on his own seduction by connectedness and its consequent distractedness, as well as his experiments with isolation. Many have noticed, somewhat ironically, that as Powers says, "I got some of my best thinking and writing done" when flying (47). The conclusion is best summed up with Power's observation, "Screen life became more rushed and superficial, a nonstop mental traffic jam" (48). He finishes this section by lamenting the disconnectedness of his constantly connected family, and the disruption of the workplace enveloped in a fog of digitopia—the perfect setup for a solution. Chapter 4 briefly discounts several proposed technological solutions as ineffective, and ultimately disingenuous.

Powers asserts, "the best place to find a new philosophy for a digital world—the door to a saner, happier life—is in the past" (5). So he proposes seven philosophers who are "screen equivalents," in the ways they connect to the wider world (79). He begins with Plato, suggesting that Athens was the screen for Plato and his mentor Socrates—the place of interaction with the crowd. Plato's dialogue Phaedrus explores concerns over the effect of the new technology of writing, based on the invention of the phonetic alphabet, on the life of the mind, especially the memory, and the art of conversation so important to Socratic inquiry (83-89). Powers observes that Socrates "judged the new tool exclusively through the lens of the old" (94). His student, Plato, was more perceptive and learned to assess the new invention in terms of the way it changes our relationship to the crowd (97). "Distance makes all the difference" (99).

Next, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a contemporary of Christ, was the quintessential philosopher statesman. In the midst of a very busy public life Seneca managed to control the crowd of busy Rome and cultivate a rich inner life (108). Surrounded by the paperwork of Roman government bureaucracy, he practiced his own sage advice, "Measure your life: it just does not have room for so much" (113). Or as Winifred Gallagher invites us to do, treat "your mind as you would a private garden ... being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grow there" (113). Reading books in codex form and writing letters exemplify technologies that foster focus and minimize distraction.

Johann Gutenberg promoted the inwardness of reading by turning a wine press into a book manufacturing machine (128). By 1500, just half a century after the first book printed with moveable type came off the press—the Bible—, there were over thirty thousand different titles totaling over eight million books (132). Conclusion—immersed in a book the crowd falls away, whereas the

point of the new reading technologies, it often seems, is to avoid deep immersion, precisely because it's an activity the crowd can't influence or control and thus a violation of the iron rule of digital existence: Never be alone. Deep, private reading and thought have begun to feel subversive. (135)

Philosopher number four is the Bard's mouthpiece, Hamlet. The handheld device used by Elizabethans, referred to above, is closer to the popular Moleskine notebook, than a Palm Pilot or a smart phone. But the principle of keeping personal information to help navigate the world is the same. Handwriting flourished in the "round hand" we call script (150). Erasable pages were an early version of deleting. Unlike our screens the pages of notebooks are blank, inviting us to fill them (152). "Like tables, my notebooks are a pushback against the psychic burden of a newly dominant technology" (152). The presence of writing on paper is a kind of "embodied interaction," affirming our individual existence (153-54).

Hamlet's inwardness is the essence of the play's power, and when he takes out his tables, inward is where he's headed. Having received a jolt from the outward world (of which the ghost, being otherworldly, is a perfect representative), it's where he needs to go. (155)

Enter Ben Franklin, the doyen of self-improvement. If you want to change yourself for the better, then your interests must be served. In this way moral perfection is achievable (167-69). Powers's application is self-discipline to curb email consumption (170-71), "less screen time yielding more time for other highly desirable pursuits" (173).

Then comes a philosopher who could be considered the first media ecologist, since he was first to critique the first electronic medium, Henry David Thoreau. He understood that the telegraph, the Victorian Internet,[3] was a major invasion of the most effective sanctuary from the crowd—the home (178, 185). Resistance by maintaining distance from the crowd was essential to the Emersonian Transcendentalism of Walden Pond's denizen. He was protecting a "zone of inwardness" on the edge of society (189).

Powers brings us to the beginning of an extensive and serious critical reflection on the electronic environment with his final philosopher, the Canadian media savant Marshall McLuhan. He represents "the missing piece" (194), by providing major tools for media navigation, the most important of which is our inner selves (195). Culture is shaped by our tools, each of which is a message, as an extension of ourselves (197). "The medium is the message (the famous book title is actually The Medium is the Massage)" means that "Technology rules!" (200). Humans have the capacity to discern the patterns of things, like the fisherman in Poe's "A Descent into the Maelstrom," in order to navigate their way out of being overwhelmed by the environment (202-5). Awareness is everything.

The last section of Powers's book summarizes the lessons learned from the seven thinkers. In the end, it's all a matter of crowd control. At the heart of this is Powers's proposal for an "Internet Sabbath." Powers wisely advises that technology is neither good nor bad, but must be controlled in order to protect the social spaces in which healthy communities thrive. I would add that the visible church has all the tools for serious crowd control, but it must use them wisely.

A few criticisms of Powers's book. It is a mystery why such a book, so chock full of information, has no index. More importantly, Powers identifies motivation as the heart of the solution of "building a good life in the digital age." He overlooks the effects of sin, as well as inattention, being the default position of human souls. In his world, Ben Franklin perfectly exemplifies this positive, practical approach to life, attacking negative character traits with good reasons to change (161). Not that the latter cannot be overcome by the presence of common grace or the former cannot be held in check by the same preserving power. But these are topics that require more exploration.

Carr: Navigating the Shallows

Carr starts with a McLuhanesque bang, quoting McLuhan's Understanding Media, technologies alter "patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance" (3). We tend to be immersed in the electronic environment like fish in water, taking the "numb stance of the technological idiot" (4). Carr follows with his own true confession of being just such an idiot. He found that he could not concentrate for long periods, and quotes well-educated men who confess to not reading books anymore. We have become a generation of skimmers and scrollers (8). After giving himself completely to Internet 2.0 (the new stage of social networking) in 2005 he became an ardent social networker and blogger until in 2007 "a serpent of doubt slithered into [his] info-paradise" (15-16).

Friedrich Nietzsche, Carr notes, discovered that the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball—an early typing machine—played a major part in forming his thoughts as he wrote (19). Combine this observation that technology effects the way we think with nineteenth-century American psychologist William James's observation that the human brain is endowed with "a very extraordinary degree of plasticity," and you have a tool to help navigate the technological terrain. In 1950, British biologist J. Z. Young lectured on the BBC on the brain's adaptability to new tasks (21), challenging the reigning materialistic view that the brain is like a machine (23).

In 1968, pioneering neuroscientist Michael Merzenich began mapping the brain and discovered its ability to reorganize in response to the stimuli of experience. Thus began a radical challenge to the dominant deterministic concept of the hard-wired brain (24ff). Purely mental activities, as well as physical action, alter neural circuitry, sometimes in dramatic ways (32). So, "We become, neurologically, what we think" (33). However, the changing pathways of the brain can become rutted by habit, changing only by a new habituation (35).

In chapter 3 Carr explores "Tools of the Mind," explaining that technologies change the way we view ourselves (43). They are, as Walter Ong observed, transformers of consciousness (51). Ong focuses on the "intellectual technologies" that "extend and support our mental powers" (44). Linking these tools to neuroscience, Carr posits a bold proposal:

Neuroplasticity provides the missing link to our understanding of how information media and other intellectual technologies have exerted their influence over the development of civilization and helped to guide, at a biological level, the history of human consciousness. (48)

Beginning with the earliest examples of reading and writing, Carr guides us on an engrossing tour of the history of technology. His knowledge of the literature on this subject, as with neuroscience, is impressive. He concludes that the development of writing and reading "required complex changes in the circuitry of the brain," which in turn enhanced the depth of reading and the attentiveness required for such depth (63). Quoting Wallace Stevens's remarkable poem "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm," Carr extols the virtues of such reading and laments the radical rerouting of the mind currently under way (75-7).

Enter computing and its bidirectional, multi-media connecting intrusion into print reading space; it is like adding lions to the landscape—it changes everything, especially our attachment to a single text, and thus our concentration. An "ecosystem of interruption technologies" has been created (90-1), with undoubted benefits, but hidden liabilities that unnoticed may undermine the very institutions we think they are enhancing.

Chapter 6 is an intriguing look at the advantages of the book. Carr claims that these advantages have made it the most resistant of all media to the Net's worst influences (99). Its simplicity and lack of electricity make it easy to read and very navigable, not to mention the enjoyment of the aesthetics of the book as a cultural artifact. Finally, the disconnectedness of the book tends to concentrate the mind in deep reading (108). The Internet boosterism of critics like Clay Shirky provides "the intellectual cover that allows thoughtful people to slip comfortably into the permanent state of distractedness that defines the online life" (112). Carr concludes, "We have cast our lot with the juggler" (114).

The next chapter explores the effects of the Internet on brain circuitry. Carr opines, "The Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli ... that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions" (116). "[T]he Net seizes our attention only to scatter it" (118). The Net does enhance the decision making portions of the brain, while undermining the linguistic, mnemonic, and visual pathways essential to deep reading (120-22). Carr's numerous references to research are themselves an information overload of the old fashioned sort, but all to make the important point that we are opting for distraction, with constant interruption as a form of immediate gratification (133-34).

Chapter 8, "The Church of Google" is one of the most compelling. Efficiency pioneer Frederick Winslow Taylor fanned the flames of the modern worship of efficiency in every area of life (149-50). Google exemplifies this efficiency. This is Neil Postman's "technopoly,"[4] a culture promoting "cognitive efficiency" above all else (151-52). "Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction" (157). "The strip-mining of 'relevant content' replaces the slow excavation of meaning" (166).

Chapter 9 explores the relationship between book reading and memory, and the importance of memory to intellectual life, quoting William James, "the art of remembering is the art of thinking" (181). Reading enhances memory, whereas the "Web is a technology of forgetfulness," because the "key to memory consolidation is attentiveness," the very thing the Net so adeptly undermines (193).

In the final chapter Carr takes on artificial intelligence. In the 1960s, MIT computer scientist Joseph Weisenbaum invented a program he called ELIZA, seeking to simulate human conversation. In the end Weisenbaum concluded that what "makes us most human ... is what is least computable about us—the connections between our mind and body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy" (207). Our pretentious attempts to create artificial intelligence tend to flatten the intelligence we have. We "program our computers and thereafter they program us" (214).

*                  *                  *

Contrary to contemporary usage, a "Luddite" is not someone who questions technology, but rather someone who seeks to destroy it in order to protect his livelihood.[5] A media ecologist, on the other hand—which I firmly believe every Christian ought to be—is a prudent steward of all human inventions, assessing their benefits and liabilities so as to use them suitably, and to know when not to use them. As I concentrate on this review, I have turned off all other applications. It has helped. I have rejected neither word processing nor the Internet. But I do seek to understand their tendencies and try to act accordingly.

Christians should beware of the chronological snobbery of moderns who assume superiority based on technological advance. Part of being spiritual warriors is to heed Paul's directive: "For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor. 10:3-5). The thought-forms of our age are in large measure embodied in our gadgets. Our inventions are each ideas that help define what is believable or relevant to our lives, part of the fabric of our cultural assumptions ("plausibility structures"). Ellul warns, "The psychological structures built by propaganda are not propitious to Christian beliefs."[6]

If we uncritically give in to these cultural assumptions, in the end we may be left with nothing more than the chimera of accomplishment. Refusing proudly to learn the craft of navigation will leave us with our sophisticated vessels adrift and disoriented in a sea of electronic distraction.


[1] Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008); Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper Collins, 2007); a positive approach to the subject of focusing is Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (New York: Penguin, 2009).

[2] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (New York: Vintage, 1973), 229.

[3] Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers (New York: Walker, 1998).

[4] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).

[5] Ned Lud was born in Leicestershire, England, in 1789. In the early nineteenth century, during the Regency period, he and his followers smashed labor saving textile machinery, due to the threat it posed to their weaving guild. Thus, ever since, those who are opposed to technology have been labeled as his followers.

[6] Ellul, Propaganda, 229.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, March 2011.