9.29.2014

Deer just outside eating fruit from the orchard


After leaving Carhenge (how cool was Carhenge?), we drove for a while, and the scenery looked mostly like the picture above. But as we drove north toward South Daktoa, the flat land of the midwest rose to hills, and trees dotted the horizon, and we knew the Black Hills would soon be upon us.
We stayed in Keystone, South Dakota, at the Backroads Inns and CabinsHighly recommend! This is the second time we've stayed in a cabin on a vacation. The first was on our honeymoon in Fredericksburg, Texas. Personal cabins are really so much more fun than hotels, and they're not much more expensive. Our one-room cabin in South Dakota cost $135 per night and came with a bathroom, kitchen stocked with pots & pans, dishes, etc., and there was the best little sun room plus our own fire pit in the back! The owners even left us marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate for the first round of s'mores. Now I can officially add "ate a delicious s'more around a campfire in South Dakota" to my reverse bucket list.

Jordan prefers cabins to B&Bs because you (these are his words) "don't have to see other people if you don't want to." That guy. But he's kind of right. It's fun being all by yourself.
There were also deer roaming about all over the place, and every time we saw one, we immediately stopped the car and shouted DEER while I snapped pictures like crazy. Because, you know, I've never seen a deer before. (Sarcasm.) I felt like Ross in that Friends episode when he's in Vermont with Emily, and he's like, "Gotta go! There's a deer just outside eating fruit from the orchard." Except there was no fruit and no orchard and no one was filming us. But otherwise it was exactly the same thing.

There were also a lot of turkey. I mean a lot. We actually had to stop our car once and wait for a flock of turkeys to cross the road. Let's just say they were in no hurry.

Keystone is a historic town because when they were carving Mount Rushmore, Keystone was the closest town (about 7 miles) and was essentially "home base." It's a very small town, and the main street is mostly just one block filled with gift shops and some restaurants. We checked Trip Advisor for reviews before we grabbed pizza at Jane's boardwalk pizza on Friday night after we checked into the cabin. The Bumgarners gave it 3.5 out of 5 stars. Not the best pizza ever but definitely a solid "like" as far as pizza goes.

There's an old train that still runs through the black hills, and we could hear the whistle from our cabin. I loved it. The house I grew up in, in Illinois was near train tracks, and sometimes I miss the sound of trains. 

It can be tricky choosing places to stay when you're planning vacation, but it turned out that keystone was the perfect place for us. I honestly was worried we'd get bored, but actually we wish we'd stayed longer! There is so much to do, and it's so dang pretty that it makes you never want to leave.
-Wednesday, Oct 1: Part 1 (of 2) of my "Life of an Editor" post
-Friday, Oct 3: More South Dakota! Pictures from our trip to Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore
-Monday, Oct 6: Project 12/September <-- HOW IS IT OCTOBER???

Where do you like to stay on vacation: Hotels? Cabins? B&Bs?

9.25.2014

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: A Recap



As previously mentioned, I picked up The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr to read on our road trip to South Dakota. Probably not your average road trip reading material, but I had heard it mentioned by a few people and thought it sounded interesting.

This is going to be less of a book review and more of a book recap. Spark Notes style, if you will. Because this book was super interesting, and I want to share some of the quotes that stuck out to me and then hopefully have some discussion in the comments. (That's assuming you make it all the way through this post, which, if this book knows what it's talking about, most of you won't. Challenge extended!)

*But first! A short disclaimer: The following is by no means all of the interesting material from this book. I picked just a few things to talk about here so this post didn't get too crazy long...er than it already is. Also, Nicholas Carr doesn't hate the Internet, and in the book he admits that there are many advantages to it. Also, just as far as a book review goes, most of the book I found easy to comprehend for the average person (aka me). But there were a few points at which he dives into some scientific brain stuff that was over my head, and I just kind of skimmed those sections.

Let's start things off with a question to consider: Do you control your technology? Or does your technology control you?

"In the end, we come to pretend that the technology itself doesn't matter. It's how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication is that we're in control. The technology is just a tool, inert until we pick it up and inert again once we set it aside." (p. 3)

All well and good, right? But Carr continues:

"[The technology] is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master." (p. 4)

Basically he is suggesting that we like to think that we control our technology, specifically the Internet, because we can put it down or turn it off whenever we want. But really it is starting to control us because even when we put it down or turn it off, it's already changed the way our brains function. Here's another quote:

"Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts--the faster, the better." (p. 10)

Oral Language and the Printing Press

In the first few chapters, Carr goes into the history of stories, discussing the earliest forms of oral language where memory was the only way to continue traditions and pass down stories to younger generations. A little later, we started carving letters into stone and pounded papyrus into scrolls. In those days, words and stories were only for the elite. 

Gutenberg's invention of the printing press brought words to the masses and made book reading popular. "To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time. ... Developing such mental discipline was not easy. Reading is valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author's words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds." (p. 64-65)

In today's society, the truth is that people just don't read any more. Why? We're losing that ability to "concentrate intently," and the internet is changing the way our minds process the things we see and read on a daily basis.  It's actually, Carr says, refiguring the way our brains are wired to process information.

Carr says that with billboards and ads and blogs and social media, we're probably reading more than we ever have in human history. But are we "concentrating intently" or just skimming? That's the question.

"The searchability of online works represents a variation on older navigational aids such as tables of contents, indexes, and concordances. As with links, the ease and ready availability of searching make it much simpler to jump between digital documents than it ever was to jump between printed ones. ... A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we're searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole." (p. 90)

The Computer's Effect on Writing & Publishing

Something I found interesting was Carr's take on the technology of e-readers and how they have affected the way we think about writing.

"The provisional nature of digital text promises to influence writing styles. A printed book is a finished object. The finality of the act of publishing has long instilled in the best and most conscientious writers and editors a desire, even an anxiety, to perfect the works they produce... Electronic text is impermanent. In the digital marketplace, revision can go on indefinitely." (p. 107)

He goes on to say that we will no longer feel the pressure of perfection because we can easily write and edit our words. When letters were pounded into stone or a handwritten note was penned in ink, don't you think the writers took special care to make sure they said exactly what they wanted to say? Now, we text while we walk and send emails from our iphones with disclaimers telling readers to "please ignore grammatical errors."

Maybe it's just the editor in me talking, but when it comes to the written word, I think a little pressure of perfection is more than acceptable. I mean, when did simple spelling errors in a professional context become okay?

I found this quote compelling:

"Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence." (p. 108)

Would you agree or disagree?

The Juggler's Brain

Carr spends a chapter discussing what he calls the "juggler's brain." The idea being that the Internet "delivers a steady stream of inputs" to our senses: our fingers and hands as we hold our iPads and as we click, scroll, type, and touch our mouses, keyboards, and screens; our ears as we hear e-mail alerts and social media dings; and our eyes, obviously, as ads and alters flash and pop up as we click from page to page.

"The Net commands our attention with far greater intensity than our television or radio or mourning newspaper ever did... When we're online, we're often oblivious to everything else going on around us. The real world recedes as we process the flood of symbols and stimuli coming through our devices." (p. 117-118)

Where it really gets interesting is when Carr posits why sustained concentration is so difficult online. I mean, if the Internet is commanding our attention like he says, why do we find ourselves so distracted? I'm going to quote him again, because I can't really say it better:

"The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information. Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us, but it's been shown to impede comprehension and retention." (p. 122)

Isn't that fascinating? I had never thought of it like that before, but it makes perfect sense!

Just a few more things. First, I want to share the following quote about the pattern in which we read online, which I had also never thought of before but found completely true, at least in my case. I'm interested to know if this holds true for you as well.

"In 2006, Jakob Nielsen conducted an eye-tracking study of Web users. He had 232 people wear a small camera that tracked their eye movements as they read pages of text and browsed other content. Nielsen found that hardly any of the participants read online text in a methodical, line-by-line way, as they'd typically read a page of text in a book. 

"The vast majority skimmed the text quickly, their eyes skipping down the page in a pattern that resembled, roughly, the letter F. 

"They'd start by glancing all the way across the first two or three lines of text. Then their eyes would drop down a bit, and they'd scan about halfway across a few more lines. Finally, they'd let their eyes cursorily drift a little farther down the left-hand side of the page. 

"F, Nielsen wrote when he summed up the findings, is for fast. That's how users read your precious content." (p. 134-135)

And, finally, two more quotes from the last few pages of Carr's book. He briefly discusses AI and, for example, things like how when you search something on Google, it now automates responses for you and tries to guess what question you're wanting to ask (essentially writing code that allows computers to "think").

"What makes us most human is what is least computable about us--the connections between our mind and our body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy. 

"The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers (as we experience more of our lives through the symbols flickering across our screens) is that we'll begin to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines.

"The only way to avoid that fate is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and pursuits, particularly 'tasks that demand wisdom.'" (p. 207-8)

"We shouldn't allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we've numbed an essential part of our self." (p. 212)

In a word: chilling.

P.S. Just in case you're interested in more, Bailie shared this post with me, which goes along perfectly with the things Carr discusses in his book.
If you made it all the way through, I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of this!
Here are a few questions to get you started:

-Do you read online text in the "F" pattern?
-Do you feel distracted when you're reading text online?
-Do you think we control our technology or does the technology control us?
-What do you think about Carr saying that we may have "numbed an essential part of our self" when we use the "glories of technology"?

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