Get Out of the Shallows

Of all the books I read last year, the Bible excepted, one has made an indelible impression upon me. I try to read 2-3 books a month, in addition to my normal weekly reading that is focused upon sermons and Bible lessons. And this book reading does not include online reading of blogs and the such. The vast majority (over 90%) of my reading is theological and doctrinal, nonfiction. It’s not that I am personally against fiction, I simply don’t have time for it.  

So, it came as a surprise to me that the one book that impacted me most last year was a secular book by a secular author. The Shallows was written by Nicholas Carr. Wow! What a book! 

While written from a secular, Darwinian perspective, which I vehemently deny, the research done by Carr is vast and expert. He traces down through history the means and mediums by which humans have learned, developed their brains, grown in social skills, stored and remembered / recalled data, exercised and stretched their minds, and so on. Granted, this kind of information might not interest many of you, but I found it fascinating. 

All Carr’s research and historical prowess, however, is being put into one big argument. The subtitle of the book squeezes that argument into a nutshell: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read, and Remember. 

I have had a growing suspicion, indeed an avarice, towards my cell phone, for several years now. Not so much my laptop, because I use it almost exclusively to study for sermons and Bible lessons, or to email congregants or guests to our worship gatherings. But that pesky phone. It threatens to change me; maybe even undo me. At least some days. And according to Carr, it is changing me. 

Hours on smartphones turn into days. Days into weeks. Weeks into months. Months into years. And all those accumulated hours of screen time, according to Carr, are making us all dumber. The internet is a tour de force to “distract the mind, scatter attention, and breed anxiety” (p. 229). Before you write this off as an “ole fogey pastor” just getting on a soap box, you should really read The Shallows. 

The author musters mountains of research studies and surveys, scientific and otherwise, to marshal his anti-screen-time troops into battle. But come on. Be honest. You all know this already, don’t you? Intuitively, I have sensed over the last ten years that if I am not very careful with these blasted pocket computers, my brain and body will be addicted before I even have a chance to admit it. Indeed, our brains are being re-wired. Literally. At the cellular, synapse level. 

And our ability to recall using long-term memory, to pay attention, to engage in more intense and long-term study, to enjoy emotional stability, and to develop proper social skills are all on the internet’s chopping block. As Carr aptly points out repeatedly, the internet’s engineers designed it that way. In other words, the internet is created to addict us to short bytes of data, most of which have absolutely no everlasting, endearing qualities whatsoever. Apps are engineered to addict and enslave. And, because we can just “Google” it, we are now consciously (or subconsciously) making no effort to actually learn anything. At least not in the traditional, historic sense. 

The irony is that “The advent of the ‘information age’ seems to have created a generation of people who feel they know more than ever before,” even though “they may know less about the world around them” (Wegner & Ward, Scientific American, 2013; cited on p. 237). We are, frankly, full of mere data. Data-overload. With no real experiential and developmental learning taking place. It is, as novelist Cynthia Ozick calls it, “memory without history” (cited p. 238).

Carr’s conclusion ought to haunt Christians, as it gets at “the fundamental problem with allowing smartphones and the companies that program them to commandeer our brains. When we constrict our capacity for reasoning and recall, or transfer those skills to a machine or a corporation, we sacrifice the ability to turn information into knowledge. We get the data but lose the meaning. Barring a cultural course correction, that may be the Internet’s most enduring legacy.” 

As Christians, can we really afford to lose or even diminish our capacity to steep like a tea bag in the Holy Scriptures? To sit for hours in the solitude of worship and prayer before the face of God? To soak up the beauty and glory of sunrises and sunsets? Of bluebirds at feeders? Do we really think we are getting better at listening to and talking to God with our phones in our hands? 

Psalm 19 says this is a more serious issue than we may want to admit. Think on it, brothers and sisters. Pray on it. And stay tuned. In the next post, I will make some recommendations for those of us who are at least willing to consider the possibility that we need to break up with our phones and screens. This is one time where a divorce might be a good thing.


by Keith McWhorter