Nicholas Carr’s prognosis for the human brain is that the omnipresent machine is shrinking our capacity for sustained thought, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The issue of control seems relevant to this discussion; Carr thinks that we can’t control our own brains when faced with the Internet.
I identify with his experience: “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.” If I’m working on my computer, it can be hard not to check that e-mail when it pops up or look up or handle something that I suddenly remember. When I’m reading a printed book, I stay focused for much longer, but phone notifications still lure me in to check them sometimes. If I’m writing, and, as usual, the words aren’t flowing easily, it’s especially tempting to give up every so often for a minute or two, distract myself, and then dive back in. I know this hurts my productivity and concentration, and I’ve been trying to stop, with partial success. What strikes me about my own experience with this issue are my feelings of control or lack thereof. When I give in to the urge to check Facebook, I know I’m making a choice, however compulsive. When I resist, it’s a small victory for my willpower. Sometimes I can almost feel my brain telling me to do what I’ve slowly been programming it to do – distract itself. My actions have led to its “rewiring,” but I think (/hope?) I can reprogram new habits.
Carr comes near the issue of control when he discusses the introduction of clocks: “In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.” We decide how to schedule our lives. We can choose to listen to our senses, or we can choose to listen to the clock. It takes more self-control to continue the natural action of obeying one’s internal clock when a clock is present. Similarly, it takes more self-control to focus on reading or writing one text for an extended period of time when the Internet stares you in the face, overflowing with e-mails, social media, bullet point posts, and kittens. But these carrots can be refused, if not all the time, at least within working hours.
James Olds, a professor of neuroscience at George Mason University, “says that even the adult mind ‘is very plastic.’ Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. ‘The brain,’ according to Olds, ‘has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.’” Carr uses this source to show that the Internet has reprogrammed our brains, but it equally indicates that we can reprogram them back the way we want them. Habits are hard for our brains to break, but we can break them. I don’t mean to suggest that we can or should stop using the Internet, but I think that with determined self-control we can choose to regain, to some degree, our attention spans and our focused and analytical method of thinking.