Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Let us begin. “Take another sip my love and see what you will see. A fleet of golden galleons, on a crystal sea …” (Moody Blues, 1970). Let us “ride the winds of time to see where we have been” and then…we can ride the mother of all see-saws!
Today we enjoy the bewilderment of a long walk off the short pier of enlightenment. But few will read this and of those who do few will read with contemplation. There are just so many distractions to divide our attentions on the Internet.
Nicholas Carr tells us in The Shallows What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains that the days of deep reading and deep thinking are over. And yet, take heart, it is an irony of enjoyment that not thinking overmuch is sometimes a requirement.
Jakob Nielson of Nielson Norman Group summarized it in red text, “On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% more likely” (Nielson, 2008).
Eye-tracking researchers say that you will scan this Web page in the shape of an F. You will skim words as you move down the left and only see 30% of the right (Nielson, 2006). Even a link to How Little Do Users Read? is enough to divide attention and break concentration.
On the Internet, you see, it’s about brevity. It is the nature of a web to entangle, but in this Web we’re both consumer and consumed.
In The Shallows Nick Carr writes, “In Google’s world, which is the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the pensive stillness of deep reading or the fuzzy indirection of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive…” (p. 172).
In observations of dwindling attention spans, machine-like thinking and disconnection from the garden, Carr points out how tools become part of us. Hold a hammer and your brain thinks it’s part of your hand. The more we use a tool, the more we mold ourselves around it.
Our brains get accustomed to typical activities. When these activities stop or new activities start it’s like our “neurons seem to ‘want’ to receive input” (p. 29). In other words, we become what our brains do.
As we extend ourselves artificially, we distance ourselves from natural functions. Like an industrialized farmer in a massive computerized machine who loses touch with the soil he serves, so too we lose touch with meaningful feelings found only in natural beauty.
It’s because of the paradox of happiness. We think that technology will make us happy, but happiness is better achieved when not pursued. Like the name of that menacing mechanic with the missing section of finger that you can’t you remember. Stop trying and out of the blue, the name comes.
So too with happiness. It sneaks up on you. The trick is to enjoy living things more than the electronic crack of computer screens.
It’s like the line from John Lennon’s song Beautiful Boy except instead of life insert the word happiness: “Before you cross that busy street take my hand. Life (happiness) is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” (see post Simple Enjoyment).
We’re pretty inept when it comes to making happiness-promoting choices (Eggleston, 2013). Based on our options, we overestimate how much happier we’ll be if we had more income and better technology but we underestimate the sacrifices we need to make.
If you ask, “What’s my situation? Do I enjoy the life I’m in?” The answer depends on opinion and your will and won’t power. Suppose you are in a situation and as you skim this in a distracted fashion, you want to get the point before it happens.
When you see that doing something about your situation is not going to help and not doing something is also not going to help, where are you? You’re nonplussed. Perplexed. Like a song. And in bewilderment you are reduced to watching.
You enjoy the fuzzy indirection of contemplation like people of long ago.
On a warm day in 1844, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne sat far from computers in a small clearing in Massachusetts, USA. In deep concentration he focused on the world around him like his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson recommended in his “transparent eyeball” idea where one absorbs rather than reflects what nature has on offer.
Hawthorne wrote of breezes, sunshine, fragrance and sound, “the gentlest sigh imaginable, yet with spiritual potency, insomuch that it seems to penetrate, with its mild ethereal coolness, through outward clay, and breathe upon the spirit itself, which shivers in gentle delight… sunshine glimmers through shadow... the fragrance of white pines… the striking of the village clock… But hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive, – the long shriek, harsh above all harshness…It tells a story of busy men, citizens from the hot street… men of business, – in short, of all unquietness; and no wonder it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace” (Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife: A Biography, 1885, pp. 498-503).
And so, like Nathaniel Hawthorne back in 1844, you too can enjoy focused noticing in what remains of the natural world and in so doing feel a calm and heartbreaking happiness.
Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York.
Eggleston, B. (2013). Paradox of Happiness. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Blackwell Publishing.
Neilson, J. (2008). How Little Do Users Read.
Neilson, J. (2006). F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content.