changing the writer’s brain?

Back in July I posted some thoughts on Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows.  

In that post, I talked mainly about reading, but one person asked whether Carr talked about the impact the Internet had on writing.  I replied in the comment section but meant to paste into a post – I’m only just doing it now!

As I say in the original comment, a lot of the impact on writing is implicit in the subject matter of the book, but Carr makes reference to both Nietzsche and TS Eliot who, when beginning to type instead of write, found that they wrote differently – sentences were shorter, tighter.

The hypothesis Carr makes is that we are shaped as much by our tools as we shape them – and this includes writing tools. Hence, if we get used to short, snappy snippets on the web, we begin to write in the same way. Carr admits that it was a great struggle to write the book itself, and he had to remove himself from all the distracting elements he had come to crave – like Facebook, Twitter, RSS readers, emails and blogging. Sometimes he felt the need to have an all day ‘Web binge’ but eventually he began to be able to concentrate more deeply again – after removing these elements.

He also mentions academic writing, where researchers become more reliant on web search tools – i.e. Google, etc. These tools are designed to find the most relevant/popular/recent information which means researchers do not necessarily read so much around a topic – partially related articles which may have been routinely scanned in a physical periodicals library will simply not be found. Thus, articles have fewer references / citations. It seems reasonable to suggest that this would be true of any writing – the more we grow dependent on search engines the less likely we will be to spend lots of time reading loosely related articles. Deep, reflective thinking around a topic may become sacrificed in the name of efficiency – finding what you want as soon as possible.

The whole book centres around thinking and remembering – essential parts of writing, so I think even when it is not specifically applied to the art of writing it’s all very relevant. We are getting out of the habit of ‘deep’ reading as our brains adapt (both chemically and anatomically) to new ways of processing information. What we might call ‘contemplative’ thinking is getting lost in the quest for immediacy and sheer quantity of information. These are quantities that our working memories simply cannot hold, and therefore do not get committed to Long Term Memory.

The question immediately comes to mind – if reading habits are being changed, how does this affect a writer? How will writers have to adapt? And – here’s the question – does the fact it is probably inevitable mean that it is good?

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2 thoughts on “changing the writer’s brain?

  1. An interesting post, Lucy. Having done my degree back in the mid-60s, long before the internet, I know what you mean about the loss of contemplative thinking and the importance of reading around a subject. Back in the days of books and periodicals only, I had to read a large amount of text to research my essays, but it was what I call slow reading, rather than the “quick glance and pass on to the next” which is what we do so often when using search engines. I think I will find myself pondering on this for a while now you’ve raised it….

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