Navigating The Shallows

The second annual Boston Book Festival takes place next Saturday (October 16) in and around Copley Square. The first one was a runaway success, and this one will be bigger and better. My personal highlights for the day, beyond acting as the host of a lively discussion (more on that below), include listening to Caroline Alexander, Atul Gawande, baseball writers, technology visionaries, and my great friend and literary guide Jennifer Haigh. I continue to be astonished at what festival founder Deborah Porter, Executive Director Emily D’Amour Pardo, and their colleagues are able to do, and am grateful for their tenacity and passion.

The final schedule has just been posted; check it out, and make it a point to come by if you’re in the area. I’ll vouch that it’s a great event for lovers, at any age, of books and reading…

… who may be an endangered species.

I’ll be hosting a panel discussion at the BBF called “Internet or Not” at which we’ll take up the big, important topic of what the Net is going to our brains —  how and how much it’s rewiring our wetware. In particular, we’ll talk about whether heavy Web use makes us less ready, willing, and able to curl up with a good book and get something out of that experience.

Nick Carr thinks this is the case. His new book is called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. One of the main things it’s doing, he writes, is rewiring our brains. He writes “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 bursts… For the last five centuries… the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society… It may soon be obsolete.”

William Powers agrees that our many screens offer tremendous temptations and often contribute to overbusy minds. He wrote Hamlet’s Blackberry to show illustrate the need for both connectedness and disconnectedness, to show that the tension between the two is, surprisingly, as old as civilization itself. The book also highlights the balancing strategies developed by seven “philosophers of screens:” Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau, and McLuhan, all of whom recognized “… the need to strike a healthy balance between between connected and disconnected, between crowd and self, the outward life and the inner one.”

Eric Haseltine sees another important tension: the one between responding immediately to short-term stimuli, which is our natural inclination thanks to evolution, and stepping back to consider problems in greater depth. He wrote Long Fuse, Big Bang: Achieving Long-Term Success Through Daily Victories to show how crucial it is to master the latter skill, and also how feasible. As he writes, “it takes no more resources or energy to be proactive to long-term opportunities than it does to be reactive to short-term threats and opportunities.”

I’ll be moderating a conversation among Nick Carr, William Powers, and Eric Haseltine at the BBF at 2:30 at the Trinity Church Forum, which is located at 206 Clarendon St. in Boston. I’ll try to tease out the points of agreement and disagreement among the three authors, as well as their levels of optimism that we’ll be able to master today’s pervasive technologies instead of being mastered by them. Our session will not be streamed or recorded, so if you want to see it and participate, you have to come to the Boston Book Festival. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

What do you want me to ask Carr, Powers, and Haseltine? What questions came to you as you read their books? Which inquiries best get to the hearts of their arguments? Leave a comment, please, and let us know. I’m more than happy to crowdsource my work as the host of this discussion, and look forward to your thoughts.