The loss of the contemplative mind

From Teddy Wayne, writing at the New York Times:

Mr. Carr also noted counterarguments: Formulating relatively simple thoughts on the internet can yield more complex ones through real-time exchanges with others, and people whose reflex is to post a notion hastily rather than let it sit may not have been the most deliberative thinkers in a pre-smartphone time, either.

Nevertheless, he sees our current direction as indicative of “the loss of the contemplative mind,” he said. “We’ve adopted the Google ideal of the mind, which is that you have a question that you can answer quickly: close-ended, well-defined questions. Lost in that conception is that there’s also this open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you. As a society, we’re saying that that way of thinking isn’t as important anymore. It’s viewed as inefficient.”

I wonder about the connection between the limits of social media and the formulation of our opinions on contentious social issues. Do we limit our thinking to thoughts and ideas that can be communicated succinctly on Twitter or Facebook?

The medium shapes the message–the way we communicate affects the types of things we say. If we’re not careful, things go one step further: The things we say affect the way we think about things.

Therefore, the medium shapes not only the message, but the thinking. Scary thought.

I listened to this EconTalk yesterday, featuring historian Abby Smith Rumsey. She talked about the role of memory in shaping our thinking and our plans for the future, and discussed how the “digitization” of memory via the virtual logging of more and more of what we see, hear and experience may affect the way we understand the past and, more intimately, determine cause-and-effect relationships in the world around us.

It’s complicated neuroscience that I hardly understand. And Rumsey says it’s hardly settled science, as Wayne (author of quote above) is careful to note in his NYT piece. At the least, I think, the possibility that the medium shapes not only the message, but also the way we understand the world gives cause for serious, personal consideration about how our choice of media–how we get the news, how we communicate with friends and family, how we express our opinions–affects the way we think about things, generally.

For example, it seems possible, to me, that over-relying on written media to communicate with others affects the way we interpret body language. Given that practice and experience makes us more fluent, in general, I think it’s likely that over-relying on text to communicate with other people diminishes our natural ability to interpret their body language–a whole other dimension of interpersonal communication that tells us more than words alone.

Maybe you don’t care about all this. And maybe there really isn’t anything to worry about–our brains are partially “plastic,” but sufficiently hardened that basic, fundamental thinking isn’t meaningfully affected by media.

At the very least, then, in a world where most look down at their phones during quiet moments, one who looks up gains a different perspective–potentially very useful and marketable. One who looks up gains an edge over other people. What successful person wouldn’t want that?

We look at our phones, anyways, hoping to find new things. We don’t want to read old emails, or see the same memes, or watch variations on the same boring videos. We want to see brand new things. And the shinier and grander they are, the more we’ll give up to see them.

I can only imagine that those most successful in creating these new things are those who see things differently and, especially, those who do things differently–those who look up when others look down.

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