This general series contains personal reflections on my current reading.
Having recently started Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010), I offer some initial thoughts, several of which came up at this morning's (delicious quiche) breakfast with my wife, brother and sister-in-law.
The cover of a teacher monthly--I think it was called TEACHER MAGAZINE--maybe twenty years ago or so, featured a sturdy young Marlboro man of a teacher (in jeans and a t-shirt) standing in a desert. Knee-high sage brush dotted the sandy floor. The camera angle made the man loom large, with the desert vista stretching behind him. At his feet sat a tiny Mac Plus, tilted slightly to one side as if disoriented or tired. The He-Man teacher showed viewers that he was in charge--man and his chosen tool. He would decide how and when to use this machine.
Four years ago, our faculty held a week-long summer institute focused on technology. Our discussions produced the consensus that we best serve students by reminding them that "technology" means "tool," and that we all should develop the habit of first asking what we want to do. Then, we choose the tools that suit the purpose.
In Carr's opening chapters, he appreciates this popular conviction that we are the tool-users, but he introduces the core of his apparent thesis: the tools themselves use us. In other words, they change us. Specifically, the internet changes how we think, not just what we think.
Our family breakfast discussion touched on social-networking tools, like Facebook. I think we agreed that such tools are training teenagers (and their brains) to move away from empathy at an important stage in their development. The appearance of anonymity or distance, among other features, lures them into "communicating" without understanding the receiver. The technology itself produces the effect. In the opening chapters, Carr has not addressed this social networking topic, but his main idea seems related insofar as empathy presumes depth and his title is The Shallows.
At the breakfast table, I could not help but put in a plug for reading literature because as teenagers move outside themselves, literature helps them develop skills of empathy by inviting them to imagine other people's lives.