wild colonial girl

A freelancer moves to Castlemaine

Move away from the computer: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr The ShallowsWhenever I move into a new house (and there have been many: 23 houses, give or take), for the first week I revel in the surroundings. The space. The views. I sit in various places. I observe what’s outside the windows. I lounge in the backyard. I notice where the sun falls, and lie in it.

By the end of the first month, I no longer notice. That space I created has already become cluttered. I look through the window but I don’t see what’s out there. I know what’s out there. I start living inside my head again.

In Tony Eprile’s article ‘Open Your Eyes: Seeing like a writer’ (March/April 2013 edition of Poets & Writers Magazine), he talks of the importance of sitting still and observing:

Simply paying attention is something anyone can do, but it requires training and patience, a Buddhist quietness of mind that allows one to look steadily and assiduously, to see and not just recognise. It requires an emptying of thought and an opening to vision … Look closely, and slowly, at the world, and it will reveal itself to be quite different from what you once imagined it to be.

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak MemoryHe goes on to talk about Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory that describes in gloriously delicate detail ‘the slow glide of a raindrop off a leaf’.

When I travel, things are different. The newly minted world has colour, texture, life. I carry a journal, write every night trying to recreate the day, and looking back, my words are always vivid and evocative. But I can’t seem to do this in my backyard. I don’t notice what’s happening to plants. I want to learn how to write about my everyday life in the same way.

Many writers are talking these days about the impact of the internet and social media on their daily practice. The constant feeling of being interrupted. The distractions. As I read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, I became increasingly aware (read: alarmed) of how using my laptop (iPad, iPhone) was affecting not only my work but the way I interact with my family. I find it increasingly hard to switch off. In our kitchen, once the domain of toasters and kettles and slow cookers, the benchspace is lined with modems, various sized cables and different items charging all the time. As I do the dishes, the iPhone podcasts from the Wheeler Centre (only 98 more podcasts to go!).

While I apparently work three days a week, on the off days my laptop sits on the bench, dinging every time someone posts on Facebook or Twitter or enters something in iCal or even sends me an email (how old-fashioned). As I read to my kids, or bash on musical instruments, I have one ear out for an update.

Of course, I know I can change all this, I can adjust all the settings, but what bothers me is that I find it very hard to commit. Each time I hear that ding I get a rush of adrenaline; like it’s a news update. I feel compelled. Even though it’s very rarely a message that requires urgent attention — or any attention at all, really. I also feel queasy, as if I’m gambling into the early hours, while I’m pushing buttons.

There’s no doubt. When I have whole days away from the computer, I start to feel calmer. I start to notice. My writing takes on unusual shapes and forms. I feel completely peaceful when I have uninterrupted time for reflection.

Nicholas Carr argues that the way we use the internet is changing how we process information, and even the way our brains work:

The mental functions that are losing the ‘survival of the busiest’  brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought — the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument…’

And what about memory? I feel like I don’t use mine much. I haven’t even bothered to remember my home phone number (after about 15 houses, I gave up) because I can store it on my mobile phone. I don’t need to look at a map, remember the address of where I’m heading, because I’ll just punch it into the GPS. But Carr argues that this kind of laziness means we are losing the capacity to create and store long-term memories:

The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement.

I don’t want to abandon social media, blogging, ebooks and internet research altogether. But after reading Carr’s book, I’m reluctant to continue using my computer the way I do. It’s a process of seduction. I let myself get distracted. But I feel used and abused later. I want to be focused.

While being able to research while not leaving your bedroom is pretty exciting (for an introvert like me), I’m now debating whether internet research really helps my writing process. Perhaps it’s better to head out to a library, to focus in on one thing at a time, to just sit and talk with people, to let ideas percolate. When I start researching on the internet, I always feel overwhelmed. Because I am interested in everything. I want to make connections everywhere. Traditional research seems to involve discovering the root of an idea and then branching out. Internet research seems to involve getting the whole tree and desperately pruning down. I need to set boundaries, as with all other aspects of my life.

When I’m older and grey, I won’t be reciting reams of poetry like my grandfather did. I wonder, as my short-term memory starts to fade, what will start to pour out?

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22 thoughts on “Move away from the computer: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

  1. Wonderful post, Kirsten, which totally resonates for me. I recommend (trying to have) one screen-free day each weekend to restore balance on the home front. And I like your idea of some novelty library research.

    I’d write more but I’m going to read an old-fashioned paperback on this tram journey instead 😉

    • Yeah, I really question what happenened to the days when I turned my computer on when I started work, and turned it off at the end of the day. I don’t even like talking on the mobile (or any phone) so that’s no excuse either.

  2. Margaret Maguire on said:

    I don’t have a lot of technology and even so, I have to force myself to turn off my mobile when people are over for lunch. If I don’t and it goes off I can force myself to ignore it but my partner cannot. He stays edgy until, finally, like a crying baby, it gets attended to.

    • How often is it really something urgent? I reckon I can count on one hand the number of times a phone call was truly urgent on my life and those phone calls pretty much came in the very early hours of the morning.

  3. I hear you. I don’t think you are alone in your addiction to social media. Addiction is the only word for it. And like any addiction, I have found myself erring back to one of my dads famous lines….. Everything in moderation. I still think social media is, at this stage anyway, something an author needs to keep a balanced relationship with because it is such a great way to connect with readers.

  4. I haven’t read this Shallows, but I read one called Distracted by Maggie Jackson. It was so enlightening. Really well written and engaging. She had this way of delving into things in detail, and going on these sustained tangents – sort of the opposite of internet surfing. It was as though the book itself was an exercise in pondering and mindfulness. I was really impressed. (Though the facts were definitely alarming!)

    I was a latecomer to the internet, (where I live you can only get satellite internet, so before that I was utterly off the grid), and when I finally got satellite I really felt the net took over my life. Not slowly, but in a big bang. And I was totally aware of it, but sort of incapable of doing anything about it. It was my first experience with addiction, which I’d previously thought I was impervious to. (So naive, I know!). I guess I see it as a kind of connection-addiction, and – in hindsight – it doesn’t really surprise me that I’d be so susceptible to it. I reckon it works like pokie addiction, where you keep pushing the button waiting for that reward.

    Anyway, I do worry about the effects on my brain and my ability to focus. To do any kind of serious writing I have to set rigid boundaries because the net definitely interferes with my capacity to daydream and imagine and story-build which all take a lot of unstructured/uncluttered time.

    And yes, I do feel as though it impacts on family life too.

    It’s such a big topic, I better stop here. Great post Kirsten!

    • Thanks Jessie, your comments ring so true. I’ll add Distracted to my list of books to read. The other good thing about disconnecting yourself is more time to really engage with reading. Slow reading. And Winter always draws me to reading. I’d like to hibernate with books for three months…I didn’t even consider I was addicted to it, really, but after I read The Shallows, I tried not to check my computer for a day, and it was hard, and my mind kept being devious and figuring out ways to tempt me…

      • It’s amazing how guilty you can feel about ‘just reading’. As though it has become a gigantic luxury in our time pressed existence. Sometimes I sneak off to my bedroom to read and I feel so busted when someone discovers me … whereas online I can seem like I am ‘working’. And, of course, sometimes I am! But I’ve been trying to reconfigure my brain so that I envisage ‘just reading’ as part of my work, which it rationally is.

        If I get really interested in something I also like to google the subject until I find an applicable book – order it, and then read about it in depth and in my own time. People write the most extraordinary examinations of things – book length examinations – and (despite my addiction) I do actually prefer that kind of learning. And it’s a kind of commitment … to the opposite of the shallows. And to books!

        I’m reading Jay Griffith’s ‘Kith’ at the moment. It’s monumental.

    • Hi Jessie, how the heck are you? And OMG! You are spot on about that reward every time the computer dings. I am Pavlov’s dog!!!!!

  5. Oh wow, in the time it took me to write that there were 6 messages! Funny!

  6. Great post…though I don’t class myself as a writer, though I do write once a week, this also works for the concentration needed for art. Thank you…now I better go and turn off the Internet!

    • I often dream I could be an artist. I have no talent in that area whatsoever (although I do love design). I once tried that Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain – but my brain was VERY reluctant. When I actually got access to my right brain I felt so peaceful, but my left kept shouting ‘come back!’, ‘that looks crap!’ ‘you can’t do art!’

      • Ah, the torment of the analytical side of our brain! I’ve slowly moved my way through listening to the naysayer part of my brain!! I urge you to try art again…it goes beautifully with writing.

  7. Great post … resonates with me too. I often read my emails on my phone before I get our of bed (mostly ebulletins from the US and junk) and take my phone with me to the kitchen while I cook. It’s not good, I know.

    I just joined a gym and one of the great things about tough exercising for an hour is that I don’t check my emails or social media (okay, maybe once or twice on the treadmill). Ditto with swimming or cycling.

    I find the same as you – that when I travel, I observe everything, because it’s all new, in a way I don’t at home. Though I am trying to train myself to do it again. A notebook helps with observation; it trains you to be watchful. I am trying to use mine more again, though lack of habit has made me self-conscious.

    • Emails before you get out of bed? I get stressed just thinking about that. On the treadmill. Ha ha! I would opt more for swimming – don’t check your emails at the end of the lap… I love travelling. I miss it so much, but you can create the world anew, I’m pretty sure.

  8. There was an anthropologist speaking on the radio the other week about pokies addiction but likened the desire to click and have something/anything happen to the incessant clicking on the internet that creates a state of mind that is deadened and there in lies the addiction. I don’t have a personal facebook and find the computer such a time waster – I often think of the time my mum had when we were little because she didn’t have a phone or the internet – no emails! To carve out some creative work time in all the housework/mothering/children administration means there has to be limits on the internet use! The world of social media is so reactionary – requiring and inciting a reaction. Exhausting! And yes – I am going to move away from the computer now! No…I really am….I’ll just click on a few more links and see what happens….ha!

    • You’re right, it is a complete time waster. I have missed your comments, by the way! I am finding that I come to my work days with a feeling of dread because I have so much that I think I have to do in such a short amount of time. But cutting down on the computer is working. I just did an edit on someone else’s manuscript totally in hard copy. It was such focused work, I really enjoyed going back to that method, rather than editing on computer.

  9. Thank you so much for that wonderful essay, Kirsten. It really is so hard to strike a balance. I have just started a new manuscript and I am finding I have to fight my need to keep up with my social media commitments otherwise I will not get anything written! Glad to know it is a problem for other writers as well.

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