Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Moroni and the Internet

In recent years a few noble souls have concerned themselves with the unpopular notion that the internet is changing the way we think. They aren’t really suggesting that we are getting dumber (although arguments are made that in fact we are - in both senses of the word) so much as that we are becoming less able to concentrate. Fewer and fewer people are able to follow a thread of thought, anymore, for any longer than it takes to scan a webpage.

Ours is a generation of cliff notes and the information segment. Not only are movie scenes much shorter than they used to be but our schools now regularly treat attention deficits as a treatable illness. Of course, we live in a faster-paced world and, some will argue, the nimble mind is now more important than an extended focus. Besides, we haven’t really become less intelligent, we’re just quicker and more competitive.

Well maybe – but then again, maybe not. Consider Christine Rosen’s recent argument that we no longer read online so much as we scan whatever happens to be on the screen in front of us. Web surfers rarely read the text on a webpage in the same way that we traditionally read a book. They jump from one paragraph or snippet to the next.

“Clicking on link after link, always looking for a new bit of information, we are actually revving up our brains with dopamine, the overlord of … the “seeking system”.” While connected to cyberspace the typical person deals with a combination of new incoming messages, quick responses to those messages, news updates, calendaring, planning, etc. All of these things (mediated by our dopamine-fueled system) “keep your brain constantly a bit distracted from what you’re reading online”.

We have become the masters of multitasking. Unfortunately, there seems to be a price to be paid for some of these associated virtues of our modern adaptability. We are losing the wisdom that comes from an extended focus and self-understanding that comes from personal rumination of the written word. We are becoming more superficial.

This problem is not entirely a product of the modern digital age. Daniel Boorstin noticed the trend in 1961 in his book, The Image. His point was that modern society was creating too many simple and convenient substitutes for the real world. He called these substitutes pseudo-events. And in the world of literature he noted the democratic trend to simplify important texts by abridgement.

Until recently, though, these abridgements (or “digests”) were written for specialists. With the success of The Readers’s Digest in the 20th Century, however, this began to change. Originally, the magazine was filled with condensed versions of other magazine articles. The founders (De Witt and Lila Wallace) at first just cut out sections of other magazine articles and reprinted their condensed versions. It wasn’t until much later that the magazine published its first full length article.

Boorstin noted about The Reader’s Digest, “This, the most popular magazine in the United States, has offered itself not as an “original,” but as a digest. The shadow outsells the substance. Abridging and digesting is no longer a device to lead the reader to an original which will give him what he really wants. The digest itself is what he wants. The shadow has become the substance.”

This worries me. It would seem that, by extension, an online snippet is even more removed from the substantial than even an abridgment. We are compounding superficiality, which wouldn’t be so bad if we restricted our scanning to practical expedients. It should be possible, after all, to capture a news update from our phone before settling down for a serious hour with Shakespeare. We should, in other words, be able to give priority to things that really matter even as we manage our superficial technologies. But are we really being so wise?

One of the great scriptural references in The Book of Mormon addresses this very issue. It is known among Mormons as The Book of Mormon Promise and is found at the end of The Book of Moroni (which is the last book in the The Book of Mormon). The preface to this promise begins in verse 3 of Chapter 10.

“Behold I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.”

Now this scripture has been variously loved, ignored, and misunderstood by generations of Latter-day Saints. It tends to get missed by superficial readers – especially when the important verses that follow are underlined in red. But Moroni, who wrote for our time, seems to be zeroing in on this particular one of our modern mistakes – I mean our superficial reading (and scanning).

The first request is that we remember something. This is certainly not a skill that our technological age encourages. If anything, the internet tells us that we need no longer worry about remembering. Why should we? Everything we need to know is just a few clicks away.

And yet the great literature of the world has always required of us a bit of reflection. Russell Kirk writes that, “The mass of miscellaneous information thrust upon us already is overwhelming and dismaying. What we need is not more information; what we require, as a public, is the ability to discriminate and integrate that mass of information, and to reflect upon it”.

Then as the content of our remembering is processed (explains Moroni) we are to ponder upon its meaning in our hearts. It would seem that Moroni is asking us to be very intimate readers. This apparently simple verse is asking us to do something like the following: read a sacred text, familiarize ourselves with sacred history enough to be able to reflect upon it, then (once a rational understanding has been achieved) consider the deeper significance of what it means to us. Awareness is expected to go from the written word into our short term memory, then to our long-term memory, then to our hearts, and finally to change our lives. We are to process a thought through the brain, through the heart, and then through the will. This is not a process measured in megabytes and seconds. This is clearly a process of engaging a text and letting it inform and to change our lives.

What happens if we sunder this sequence to the soul? What happens if we re-train our minds to become efficient scanners without retaining our human-paced ability to reflect? I think we risk being deceived. We run the risk of finding ourselves spiritually, historically and humanely limited.

But in truth, we don’t know what our current literary neglect will do to us. One possibility is that we will only be less informed. Another possibility is that we will physically become less human. Consider the recent findings (reported by Nicholas Carr) of researchers studying the brains of London taxi drivers.

It turns out that those drivers with the most experience – those having driven the streets of London for decades – had enlarged areas of the brain. Their posterior hippocampus tended to be larger than normal. This change had developed because of an exaggerated need to navigate the intricate maze of streets in a large and complex metropolitan area. The authors of the study believe that this acquired ability also came with trade-offs. The size of the brain, it is believed, is only able to grow so much within a rigid adult skull. If one area gets bigger does this mean that an adjacent area must get smaller?

Or in other words, if we become master scanners, do we lose an existing (yet underutilized) ability like deeper reflection – something like gaining fat while losing muscle? Maybe we do, but we don’t know. I have more optimism in our God-given brains than to become alarmed over this anatomical issue. What does alarm me a great deal, however, is our ongoing cultural neglect of serious literature and the ability to seriously engage a text.

This ability is being neglected, for sure. Just take a few minutes and scan the literature on public education these days. Most of the discussion is over budgets, test scores, new legislation, technology, etc. Where is the serious thought about texts? Now, in order to save money, we even hear of proposals to eliminate many existing books from the classroom – relying on web-based alternatives instead.

We have every reason to be concerned about this. Take for instance Betsy Sparrow’s (et al.) recent findings in Science that the internet affects memory. In a series of experiments, students were tested on their ability to recall information under various situations. The researchers found that the ability to remember was significantly less when participants expected that they could find the information later online. What students where remembering, was how to access the information rather than on the information itself.

I think Moroni just might be a little concerned about this. Maybe it isn’t all that important whether or not we memorize the names of the Beatles, of every recipe we use, or every street name between hear and the airport. Let’s use our gadgets for such expedients. But let’s remember that it does matter if we’ve committed sacred texts to memory. It also matters whether or not we remember the main arguments of a political philosopher or of an observant historian. And how do we expect to make our lives better if we can’t even remember what an inspired leader taught us just a few months ago?

There were good reasons that our ancestors memorized texts. We are a bit surprised when we learn, for example, that a couple of hundred years ago, public speeches (often lasting many hours) were memorized by talented listeners and written down afterwards. We are sobered by the dedication of Muslims that memorize the Koran. And now that I’m not so far from being a senior citizen, I’m amazed that many of the long texts I memorized as a youth are still with me and inform my thinking to this day.

Memory and reflection go hand-in-hand. And the kinds of memories that really matter are the ones that we gather from important texts. If we get wired by engaging the digital world, then we need to know when to step away from it. We need time to stop and think. Moroni was keenly aware of this. In fact, who knows, he may have been looking right at us and our distracted selves shaking his head. It’s worth reflecting on just such a possibility.


Christine Rosen’s article In the Beginning Was the Word appeared in the Autumn, 2009 issue of the Wilson Quarterly (Volume 33(4):48-53). My copy of Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image, A Guide to Psuedo-Events in America was published by Vintage in 1987. Russell Kirk’s statement comes from Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer, found (as Chapter IX) in Redeeming the Time, published by ISI Books in 1999 (second printing). For the account of the London taxi drivers and the issue of brain changes caused by the internet, see The Shallows, what the internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr (published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). For Betsy Sparrow’s (et al.) article see: Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at our Fingertips, Science, 333, pp. 776-778 (2011).

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