Monday, November 28, 2011

Et tu, Nicholas Carr?

I did not intend for it take this long for me to finish writing up my thoughts and reflections on AASL, but, well, it has. I thought of skipping writing this up altogether, but I’ve had a draft going for so long this now more about a battle of wills than anything else.

While at AASL I had the pleasure of sitting on a book discussion panel with Sara Kelly Johns, Joyce Valenza, Doug Johnson, and Nicholas Carr; we were all there to discuss Carr’s book, The Shallows.

I found the book very interesting—very frustrating at times, as the notes in my margins will attest—but I thought there were a lot of interesting ideas. I was excited to have a chance to talk to Carr about some of the things the book had made me think about—ideas beyond what he’d written. I wanted to take the conversation he’d started in the book, and push it in new directions.

I’ve posted the “long version” of my question to Carr; I did not read the entire thing—these were my notes I used to prepare (looking at this made me realize something a colleague had said to me years ago, but which I didn’t think was true—I tend to think in paragraphs. This kind of weirds me out). My question to Carr was about the ADD brain, and whether it may be better adapted to this new information landscape.

Tom Hartmann's hunter vs. farmer theory of ADD/ADHD (which is by no means the definitive explanation) proposes the idea that ADD was, at one point, an evolutionary advantage. When we hunted for our food we needed people who were excited about the risk and pursuit of the kill—but also able to muster the hyperfocus necessary to hunt and track an animal. However, those skills are maladaptive in most classrooms and offices. But with media environments that call for us to not only switch focus frequently, but also have the ability to focus in on important information (you know, like if that rustling in the bushes is the wildebeest we want to make our dinner), is it possible that we’re coming back to a time when people with ADD are at an evolutionary advantage again?

His response was, in a word, unsatisfying. His response to all of our questions was, frankly, unsatisfying. Not because of the content of the answer, but because he seemed—both in that book discussion and in conversations outside of that formal discussion—unwilling to engage in ideas outside of what he had decided he wanted to talk about.

I may be assuming too much. Maybe he does engage and dig into ideas with other people in other contexts. But he was there specifically to talk about his book and the ideas in it. However, it became clear that he was there just to talk about the ideas in his book—not to apply his ideas to new information or contexts.

For someone who had written a book that had a basic premise of “people are no longer willing and able to engage deeply with new ideas”, his seeming unwillingness to engage deeply with new ideas was, well. . . surprising.

I would have loved to point that out to him, but I have a feeling he may not have engaged with that idea either.


This is the long version of the question I asked of Carr:

I work at a school for students with learning disabilities, primarily dyslexia and ADD/ADHD. Inattention, lack of focus, and distractibility are not unfamiliar topics for me. And while no one--particularly not those who have or work with those who have ADD—would deny that it presents a variety of challenges, there are unique strengths to the ADD brain as well--the draw to risk and change, the willingness to identify problems (even or especially when tact would make others hold back), the eagerness to respond in the moment, and when engaged in an issue that interests them, a laser-like focus that is unparalleled.

Tom Hartmann's hunter vs. farmer theory of ADD/ADHD, while not the definitive explanation of the roots of ADHD, does offer an interesting hypothesis for the evolutionary basis for ADD. The theory proposes that the high frequency of ADD in modern settings represents otherwise normal behavioral strategies that become maladaptive in environments such as the classroom or office. Traits that made it possible for our nomadic ancestors to survive can make life very difficult for our settled selves.

But not in all instances. There are still situations in which the ADD brain thrives. The
environment of video games you described yesterday--being asked to pay attention to multiple stimuli at once and respond to all--sounds a lot like the demands placed on an ER doctor--a role in which the ADD brain thrives.

There is one particular strength of the ADD brain that some of us might be rightfully
jealous of, and that is the ability to hyper focus. After all, being a good hunter was not just about risk and pursuit of the kill; it also entailed patience and persistence.

That intense focus on a topic, usually to the exclusion of all others, is something that many seem to want to do, but comes naturally to many with ADD when they are engaged in a topic about which they are truly passionate. This focus, combined with its impulsiveness, makes the ADD brain, in many ways, the entrepreneurial brain. And I don't think anyone would argue we don't need entrepreneurial brains.

The world shifted and changed in a way that made life more difficult for those with ADD,
but if now our technology is truly making us more distracted and distractible, are those
with ADD, and their ability to hyper focus, at an evolutionary advantage again?


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. Carr seems to have squandered a great opportunity. So glad you didn't give up on your draft! I really enjoyed reading this.

  2. Thank you, glad you enjoyed it! I've been spoiled by having the opportunity to see some great speakers/presenters, and I'm very used to speakers (and attendees) at library conferences in particular being very willing to delve into new ideas--a lost opportunity for Carr indeed!