Covid-19 Internet Science Science and Technology Social Media Spirituality

Depth in Shallow World

In an inaugural speech of books titled Samvad Upanishad and Akshar Yatra on August 08, 2020, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi said “….in this age of the digital world, our younger generation, tending to fetch the information from Google Guru, will definitely receive something phenomenal if they go through such books. In this very age of text and tweet, it is extremely important to ensure that this generation should not move away from real knowledge…” PM insisted to must have space for books in our house where family members should go through these value-driven sources of knowledge. What do these statements really mean when one of the most admired and popular political leaders of the world in social media speaks about the importance of thoughtful reading beyond social media and the internet? How such statements are really significant to the millions in this modern and dynamic world?

Let us begin with a few common but personal thought-provoking questions. Have you lost the tendency of mindful reading with deep concentration? Do you feel difficulty in staying focused and your mind tempt to switch frequently for something else to do? Or while performing a task you lose attention because of the residual thought of your previous tasks? Do you feel like your way of thinking is changed? These are deeper neurological changes in mind, unknowingly developed with time. It’s not a new and rare problem but a decade old and common one with most of the knowledge workers involved round the clock over the internet; the culture of connectivity.

Is Google Making Us Stupid? ” this is a title of a very popular essay about “what the internet is doing to our brain” published in 2008 in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, written by Nicholas Carr; an acclaimed writer of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired whose work focuses on the intersection of technology, economics, and culture. Carr later authored the famous book The Shallows in extension to the referred article. In the above essay, Carr summarized the experience of many top-class knowledge workers who were using the internet in their work. The statements of some of them, in the essay, are as follows …I’m not thinking the way I used to think…, …now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do…, …The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle… Carr quotes famous blogger Scott Karp …“What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”…, … Another blogger Bruce Friedman “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print”… Not only these anecdotes but also many neuroscience studies are refereed in his articles about change in thinking, loss of ability to read and write, and tripping of mind from one task to another, and so on due to the internet. If we go back into the memories, in 2008, the internet was popular among the knowledge workers for their routine jobs but it was not available as easily and frequently as it is today in countries like India. That time, however, the essay of Carr has raised serious concerns about the influence of the internet in our brains and recommended for its limited use but, with the time, its use has further increased.

…I’m not thinking the way I used to think…,
…now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do…,
…The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle…,
…the way I read has changed…,
…the way I THINK has changed…,
…totally lost the ability to read….

In 2020, the post-COVID world, most of our knowledge works and entertainments are now turned on internet, for example, seminars are turned into webinars, personal meetings with friends and relatives are replaced by video callings, physical social gathering is already taken over by social media, schools and colleges are switching to online classes and offices into work from home. We feel blessed to have the information technology which has allowed us to pursue our regular activities mostly through the virtual platforms. But we cannot ignore the other side of the coin. What the real price are we paying to live in our new world of internet culture? How knowledge workers and brilliant brains are unknowingly getting addicted to the fragmented concentration and trapped into attention residue. The ability of deep work, prolong concentration and focused mind is diminishing with time in the new order of the world; can be pronounced as the shallow world.

Leslie A. Perlow, Professor of Leadership in Organizational Behaviour – Harvard Business School, in her research with Boston Consulting Group, found workaholic consultants were spending around 20 to 25 hours a week outside the office monitoring e-mail. It was a kind of pride feeling for most of the consultants that they remain digitally connected all hours to their professional world but what if their friendships, fitness, and families suffer in the long run. Leslie changed their culture of connectivity – complete off from work at least for a day in a week. This small change resulted in a way that the consultants liked a little time off. For them, their stressful job became peaceful. They started feeling better in their jobs and were less likely to quit. Most strikingly, they and their bosses rated their work more highly. Perlow argues that the always “on” mentality can have a long-term detrimental effect on many organizations. In 2012, she authored a book titled Sleeping with Your Smartphone with the idea of how to break the 24/7 habit and change the way you work.

In an article, titled “Email is Not Free” published in Harvard Business Review in 2013, Tom Cochren, tells about him exchanging 160 e-mails on average per day over five day work week in his job without the job profile of managing email flow. It is approximately a half-day and an hour if average 30 seconds have been spent in a single message. His further findings with his colleagues and senior executives motivated him to understand the financial impact; the bottom line. It is interesting here to borrow his statement “By calculating average typing speed, reading speed, response rate, the volume of email, average salary, and total employees, we were looking at a seven-figure price tag to quantify our email pollution. A “free and frictionless” method of communication had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet. Each individual email ate up 95 cents of labor costs”. This is nearly one US Dollar which is equivalent to 70 Indian Rupees nowadays. The economic impact of the culture of connectivity is found tremendously higher than that of the realization. But the actual circumstances of this shallow culture cost much higher than the economy. These anecdotes are also supported by many psychological and neurological research on the impact of the internet on human brains.

In 2018, Maryanne Wolf, the Director, Centre for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice of University of California, Los Angeles, has authored a book on the reading brain in a digital world titled Reader, Come Home. In this book, the impact of technology on our brains, on our intellectual capacities, and on our future is discussed in detail with many scientific studies. About 10 years back, Wolf has authored the story and science of the reading brain as a book titled Proust and the Squid where she asserted that the …..The brain that examined the tiny clay tablets of the Sumerians was a very different brain from the one that is immersed in today’s technology-driven literacy. The potential transformations in this changed reading brain, have profound implications for every child and for the intellectual development of our species.

Similarly, Ferris Jabr, Q&A with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang the author of the book titled Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less and founder of STRATEGY + REST published in Scientific American is worthy to read to understand why a rested brain is more creative; taking breaks—from naps to sabbaticals—can help us to refocus and recharge. His findings with a combination of rigorous scientific research with a rich array of examples of writers, painters, and thinkers-from Darwin to Stephen King- conclude that “Deliberate rest,” is the true key to productivity, and will give us more energy, sharper ideas, and a better life. There are many such examples around us about successful, effective, and famed efforts of spiritual and social leaders like Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, their mastery in their domain of work, and therefore groundbreaking impact in the lives of millions of people without social media platforms.

We are the society where our ancestors have the legacy of Yoga and Meditation; an exercise of the mind to practice diving deep. We practiced many methods of worship where we avoid distractions for a long time. The ancient crafts and carvings over the walls and pillars of many ancient temples, monuments, and idols in India are not only the examples of high skilled act of hammer and chisel but also a perfect example of elevated wisdom of craftsmanship having control over the mind to focus like a converging lens; the way lens converges all the gathered light at one point. Our genetic growth of mind is in line with the practicing deep work full of concentration with prolonging attention but the direction of the business of the internet is quite the opposite. The business of search engines like Google depends on how much and how fast do we search, jump one link to another. The data and feedback of this jumping help search engine to make advertisements to display on our laptop, computer, iPad, and mobile phone screens, etc. There are many such ways of the internet world to make money. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

The ability to concentrate without distraction on a demanding task (what I call “deep work”) is becoming more rare at the same time that it’s becoming more valuable in the knowledge sector. As a result, those individuals and organizations who put in the hard work to cultivate this skill will thrive.

A couple of examples summarized above have been taken from the book titled Deep Work authored by Cal Newport. Cal himself is a perfect example who follows his rules for focused success in a distracted world; a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT in 2009, two-year postdoc, also at MIT, joined Georgetown University as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science during the 2011 – 2012 academic year and received the fastest title of Provost’s Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, published more than 60 peer-reviewed papers that have been cited more than 3,500 times. In addition to these extraordinary achievements, Cal has authored Six Books on the intersection of digital technology and culture with a couple of entitlements like New York Times Best Seller, Wall Street Journal Business Bestseller, etc without any social media account. According to Cal, deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive twenty-first-century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

In the modern world, the practice of using the internet causes diffused attention and fragmented concentration in human minds and doesn’t allow brains to practice intense and prolong concentration. Learning, creativity, and quality work are the outcome of the act of deep work that requires intense concentration and uninterrupted thinking for prolong time. To learn hard things quickly you must focus intensely without distraction. The Internet is a wonderful tool for knowledge workers but it is equally important to know how it should be used. Receiving a quantity of information without proper instruction may be misleading. Better keep ourselves in-depth for the purposeful gain of valued life, let’s not swim near the surface for temporary and short term accomplishments; near the unknown danger.

A piece of this article in further published as The digital disconnect in My Voice OpIndia.

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