I cannot repeat the entirety of his argument here, of course, but it is compelling, drawing on neuroscience as much as history and current behavioral research.
Carr and others he quotes describe the internet as a 'distraction machine', and he delves into the questions of cognitive load and the relationship between distraction and comprehension and memory. The argument is so compelling that I have been prompted to rethink how I do a lot of different activities, spanning both work and leisure, and after a quick audit of my own habits I can definitely say that I have been exhibiting the symptoms Carr describes.
My first reaction to this has been to read Carr's book thoroughly, and I have about a quarter of the volume left to go. This can be contrasted with the habit of skimming that I had picked up over the last few years, where I would skim and drop a book, rather than allow myself time and effort to read it deeply, as I would have done in the past. Last Saturday I read Carr's book for about six hours in a single sitting. It is a long time since I had experienced this - Carr himself points to the lost art of 'losing oneself in a book' - and it was a great pleasure rediscovered.
The second habit I am rethinking is email. I have set my email client to retrieve mail only once every hour, and I might restrict it further subject to the findings of my trial. I am consciously not visiting the email app to see 'what's come in', and trying to focus deeply on the task at hand, whatever that may be.
That just leaves a persistent Facebook and Twitter feed, chiming away on my iPhone. The phone also buzzes lightly whenever I receive an email. All of these distractions must be mastered.
In the spirit of de-cluttering and winding back the distraction potential of my own little corner of the internet, I have redesigned my website using this simple, low-distraction format. I am also going to rely a little less on imagery in future posts. This might make the site less visually appealing at first glance, but I think the benefit is that there will be no extraneous illustration, and more focus on the contents of my writing. I think the new format is also easier to read, which I am coming to appreciate more as my eyesight ages in a far-from-graceful manner.
In all of this, Carr acknowledges the benefits the internet brings. He is no Luddite, and agrees that there are indisputable positives. More than this, he accepts that there is no going back. Nevertheless, the issues he raises are of such significance that I feel we should all hear what he has to say, and devote a bit of deep thinking to the problem.
I am hearing Nicholas Carr speak tomorrow night. I hope he is as cogent and thought-provoking in person as he is on the page. I will report back forthwith.