the shallows: chapter 4


“The natural state of the human brain… is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much going on around us as possible.” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

The fourth chapter of “The Shallows” talks about the evolution of the written word, starting in Mesopotamia. Carr parallels his review of this cultural shift with the subsequent effect it had on our minds. I’ve never given thought to a time before literature, but when I consider the inevitable change that mass reading instigated, I find it pretty awesome. “They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another.” Ever since I read this chapter, I’ve been searching for a comparable situation where we find it difficult to remain focused on an activity requiring significant amounts of attention. The irony is that for the longest time, the act of reading itself was the only example I could think of. Because of the way our technology has evolved, reading seems to find itself back at square one.

Thankfully, Postman has assisted me by touching on our devolved attention spans in Amusing Ourselves to Death. In Chapter 4: The Typographic Mind, Postman begins by discussing 19th century debates and political addresses, specifically those between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Postman recounts one event where the speakers and crowd broke for dinner in the middle of the engagement because the debate was so lengthy (a total of 7 hours). It’s difficult to imagine a time where a debate between two men could hold a full audience’s attention for that long. Postman also notes the length and complexity of the speakers’ sentences.

I believe he also addresses the transition to visual mediums and the way it has affected our attention spans (though I’m not sure off the top of my head where he mentions it). I have found both personally and observationally that many concepts and ideas are best understood through a visual explanation. We are becoming increasingly focused on the visual tools available to us; one simple way to observe this is to walk down the toy aisles in stores. I am no child education specialist, and I’m sure there is value in visual tools for learning, but between these toys and children’s television programming learning is becoming more and more focused on not only visual but amusing material. I encourage anyone interested in the topic to see Chapter 10: Teaching as an Amusing Activity of Postman’s book, along with his other books on modern teaching (I haven’t read these, but plan to in the future; see my relevant lit page for information).


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