There is a famous line from the 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, which starred Paul Newman. The line is, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” What we’ve got in today’s world is not so much failure to communicate. What we’ve got is a superabudance in ways to communicate; a boundless magnitude of lightning fast methods to trade information, ideas, opinions, and, yes, insults, spite and hate. The speed at which we are able to convey our thoughts, some experts believe, is having an adverse affect on the way we think.
In 1964, Canadian philospher Marshall McLuhan wrote the oft repeated words, “The medium is the message.” Expanding on that thought he also wrote, “In the long run, a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.” If you believe that is true, as I do, then you must believe that the light speed-like internet is degrading how we judge the content that pours into our social media accounts minute by minute.
Nicholas Carr has done a pretty good job in explaining how that works. Carr was a finalist for 2011 Pulitzer Prize with his book,. “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.” He proposes that the world wide web is altering our very thought process. Carr, in turn, was recently interviewed by Ezra Klein on his Vox Podcast. Carr says our dependence on the internet is a trade-off between getting lots of information very, very fast and the ability to organize that data inside our heads into a “rich base of knowledge.” We lost something with the internet, Carr says. “What was lost,” he continues, “was not only the ability to engage in deep reading and attentive thought and contemplation, but also when we come across new information, the ability to bring it into our mind and put it into a broader context. That takes time. That takes attention. That takes focus.”
It is the same line of reasoning I have about the pressures facing journalists in today’s world. Let’s take the example of the news coverage during the Vietnam war. When a TV correspondent and the film crew covered a battle or some other event, that film usually had to be shipped to New York for developing and editing. That often meant twenty-fours hours before the report would appear on television, giving the correspondent ample time to reflect on the event and give it some crucial context in the wider scheme of things. Not exactly the immediacy we are use to today, but it gave the correspondent an opportunity for some deeper thinking.
In today’s high-tech world, when so-called Breaking News occurs virtually every second, and is instantly transmitted by the internet and by satellite around the world reporters have lost the luxury of deep thinking. There is no time for proper attention. There is no time for focus. The result? To borrow Carr’s book title, The Shallows…in journalistic performances.
Carr agrees with McLuhan that advances in communication techology alter the way we use our gray matter, even the way we live. Before the printing press was invented, way before homo sapiens knew how to read, the main method of communication was vocal and other group related sounds. Thus, early societies were more social out of necessity. With the advent of the printing press writing and reading became the way to communicate. Societies became more individualistic. Reading, afterall, is mainly a one person job and leads to independent thinking.
Carr says modern technology has taken that idea even further. When the internet was developed, he explains “We were all concentrating on that great new bounty of information: the more information, the better — the faster it comes to me, the better.” Yes, but at a cost. Carr continues. “What we lost sight of was how we actually take that information into our mind. There’s all sorts of very good evidence that if you’re distracted — if your attention is shifting very quickly — you can gather lots of information in a very swift fashion, but you’re not going to assemble it very well into knowledge. It’s going to just remain bits of information. You’re not going to develop a rich store of personal knowledge, which is all about connections and associations.”
To me, it’s like staring at a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle all laid out on a table. We have all the information. It is all those irregularly shaped pieces, those “bits of information.” We just haven’t put those pieces together to see the big picture. We haven’t made the puzzle connections and associations, so we are not sure how the big picture even comes together.
We see this happening over and over again, leading to online anger, name calling, and retributions for perceived slights and accusations. We are seeing knee-jerk actions leading to knee-jerk reactions. All this outrage dispensed in a roar of information seemingly without a moment’s pause, without the thinking, deep or otherwise. Recently, for one example, a posting on social media purported to be a photo of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC that had been vandalized. The internet exploded with condemnation and many respondents blamed anti-racist protesters. The vandalism was despicable, to be sure. But it was not the DC Vietnam Memorial, nor was the vandalism recent. It was reported to be a replica in Los Angeles that had been hit by vandals in 2016.
What we’ve got here is communication overload.