"Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words," Nicholas Carr writes in "The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains." "Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
New technology does more than change the way we use words. It also changes the way we think.
Because repeated experience influences the formation and function of our synapses, using a new technology alters how our mind works. It changes the way we formulate and express thought. It alters the way we store and recall information.
Carr cites an example from around 750 BC: the invention of the Greek alphabet. In "Phaedrus," written about 400 years later, Plato depicts a dialogue in which the Egyptian god Theuth recommends to an Egyptian king Thamus that he adopt this fancy new technological tool. Writing would make his people wiser, Theuth argues.
Plato understood that written discourse was more logical and rigorous than oral expression. In purely oral cultures, as Carr notes, "thinking is governed by the capacity of human memory."
And yet, Thamus argues, if Egyptians learn this new system of written symbols, that very capacity would be diminished:
"It will implant forgetfulness in their world: They will cease to exercise memory because they [will] rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks."
The poet Denise Levertov, born in 1923, expressed reservations about another new technology -- word-processing:
"If you copy something out by hand, before you move on to the typewriter, you've already gone on making minor changes. This is an intuitive part of the creative process, and one that's eliminated by the use of word processors."
The problem, according to Levertov, is that the completed-looking copy makes people think they've finished when they should continue reworking their ideas and words:
"The word processor doesn't take as much time as actually forming the letters with your hand at the end of your arm which is attached to your body. It's a different kind of thing. [People] don't realize that this laborious process is part of the creative process."
With each new technology -- from alphabet-based writing to computer-processed text to the Internet -- something is gained and something is lost. As we move on to the new, how can we preserve what was good about the old?
Here are five suggestions:
1. Memorize a few lines of great poetry.
2. When you come across a beautiful sentence or passage, read it out loud, listening closely to the sound and cadence of the language.
3. If it's an important or complicated message, draft it in Word. Then paste it into your e-mail software program.
4. Don't work exclusively on screen. Edit some things on paper. Write some things by hand.
5. Slow down. Take time to get it right. Don't measure your productivity by speed alone.
The computer is changing the way you think. Don't let it dictate the way you write.