You are reading these words on a screen. They come to you as information from a vast network of computers. Most likely, you were linked here via social media or email. Such a path to written word would have been unthinkable to people a hundred years ago, and the capability of the internet to enter and alter people’s lives is incredible. Without it, my work as a writer would be much harder. And there’s no question that I’m as intractably stuck in the world of the internet as anybody else. But as people who are both on and offline, we must find ways to negotiate technology and ridgelines in a life that spans both.
Recently, I finished The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, a 2011 book by Nicholas Carr. Covering the important shift in brain function that results from way we interact on the internet, it should be essential reading for nearly everyone. Societal transition from books or newspapers to screens has done more than just simplified and shortened our access to content. The new format, with its hyperlinks and flashing advertisements, changes the way that our brains process information. Instead of the blank margins of a book, where the words are the focus, I know that I’ve felt the restless distraction posed by interacting and reading on the net. In some ways, this blog is part of that noisy wave. Carr summarizes this eloquently:
“And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider.”
Speaking about the Twitter discussions of live events, Carr states, “Even the experiences we have in the real world are coming to be mediated by networked computers.”
Tuning out. As I read, I thought hard about what it means to tune out, to become involved in activities that have nothing to do with electronics or the myriad ways they’ve come to constitute our lives. The feeling crept up that Carr is writing from the standpoint of someone who often can’t escape the things we’ve done to ourselves. Which would be the case for me–but I’ve got a serious habit of doing things that don’t occur in cell service. The blank margins of a book, that entirety of focus and deep concentration on task at hand, these are the feelings that come with being beyond the reach of text messages, email, social media. Solitude is not just getting away from people. It’s also a retreat also the maelstrom of technology that comes with us.
In the centuries after the creation of the printing press, the naturally distracted state of the human brain experienced a new phenomenon. Carr writes, “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to single, stated object…they had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them”.
My time in the mountains is, for me, that concentration. When focused on the next turn in a chute or balancing to make the next clip while climbing, the wealth of distractions quiets. Nothing else is there but the moment. And I’m convinced that in the same way that books provide that depth of distraction, the outdoors free from screens and cell service are a wilderness essential to our survival.
Deep thought isn’t a luxury. Time to think should be a part of everyone’s life, whether they get it in conversation in a coffee shop or being battered by groppel high on a peak. Perhaps the photos between these blocks of text seem like a distraction. Instead, view them as the real point: as outdoors people, we need our solitude more than ever. There’s much to gain by what we can access with our technology. It shouldn’t supplant our ability to think, though. It can’t replicate the joy of sweating hard to achieve something physically difficult. In its frenzy, it won’t allow us the ability to retreat. So shut off your screen, turn off the nonsense, and go play for every reason you already know.