The first few chapters of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows are packed full of thought-provoking and reflection worthy topics. From philosophy of mind to neuroplasticity to the printing press, many hours could be spent discussing a few dozen pages.
For now, though, the focus will be on “the dissolution of the linear mind” (Carr,1). A notion that promises to be hashed out and developed throughout the course of the text. In an effort to get all of my thoughts aligned, perhaps a stab at some semblance of a definition is in order. Most simply, a linear mind is one that thinks, understands, and learns based on the conventional paradigm of beginning, middle, end. That’s not to say that all comprehension begins and ends at certain points, but that the mind rests on a linear framework that provides a sort of platform for understanding. Tracing the evolution of mind back through time, Carr comes to identify the split from an oral tradition to a written one as the fundamental root of the linear mind. Given that his is a book about the internet, one does not have to go out on too shaky of a limb to infer that it is the hyperlinking, topic-morphing surfability of the web that is contributing to said dissolution.
Though it pains me a bit to leave such a provocative philosophical question, I want to address what I perceive to be a particular example of this shift. As a teacher, it is nearly impossible not to know your students pretty well. For the most part, you get a good sense of their interests, hobbies, and habits in and out of the classroom. The one I have in mind now is a very chatty, energetic, bright thirteen-year-old. She is one who will not hesitate to challenge an opinion and never fails to pounce on any inconsistency she might identify. She’s also quite forthcoming about the amount of time she spends online: at least six hours a day, she contends; probably more on the weekends.
While she has a nimble mind, her reading comprehension is quite below grade level. Much time and effort has been spent reading, visualizing, and talking about very short mini stories (5-8 sentences) designed for these particular exercises. First taking them one sentence at a time, then two or three sentences, next a whole paragraph, and ultimately paragraph by paragraph. She was making great progress and moving along rapidly, but when the next phase, outlining, was introduced things slowed down considerably. After reading a passage of maybe eight sentences, she struggled to recall key details and proper sequence. It seemed that the order and organization of the paragraph simply didn’t make sense to her.
Now that I am reading The Shallows and thinking about the linear mind, I can’t help looking back and wondering if all that time online contributed to this particular problem. There is certainly a wealth of information to be had online and it has made the writing process much more streamlined in many ways, but if it isn’t organized and sifted by the student writer, then it loses much of its utility.