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Is the Web Making Us Stupid?
Topics: Technology


Atlantic

“Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. 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. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

~ Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", The Atlantic

While the Web is wonderful, it is having a subtle and profound effect. Though it helps us search for and get answers quicker, it seems to be changing the way we read, process information, and think. The art of the "deep read" is giving way to the "power browse." We used to be comfortable scuba diving into a sea of words and thoughts. Now, we seem to be a culture of jet skiers who dart along the surface. Have we lost the patience and mental energy for the heavy lifting of intellectual reading? 

While the evidence of this shift is largely anecdotal at this point, I confess that my own reading habits seem to be getting sloppier. I have perfected the art of starting a book and never finishing it  I read my emails like I read through blogs ... power skimming and often missing critical details. I struggle to read articles now because my attention span has grown used to blog posts. The scarier thought for me, however, is that the Web may be reprogramming the way I think too.

Carr's essay is 4000 words long. I know that is a heavy read for us blog readers, but I encourage you to read it all and weigh in with your thoughts about Carr’s thesis.


Comments:

Wow "L'Interface", I look forward to reading all the installments of your analysis of Postman's book. (Which I think everybody should read... or at least catch the TV version *wink*).
The internet is a tool and, like any tool, can be used or abused. The real problem is the lack of critical thinking skills to use with any tool, be it the internet or a book. A root problem, if not the root problem, was described in the later part of the last century by Neil Postman in his watershed work, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Many of the points covered above are mentioned therein. Cf. http://theinterface.blogtownhall.com/2006/09/12/amusing_ourselves_to_death,_part_1__intro.thtml
I skimmed this article several days ago. :) It's true that "the medium is the message," but when the entire world has been transformed by this particular medium...well, honestly I have to wonder what the big deal is. We're not likely to go backward to 19th-century-style information processing, and our brains have adapted/are adapting to the current speed of information flow. So? Unless through some apocalyptic event the satellites should fall, we probably don't need to cultivate all the same habits of mind from days of yore that no longer serve our needs. I'm frankly more concerned about how the internet makes possible a wider and readier dissemination of smut than how it affects my reading comprehension. I find I have no problem focusing and reading when I hold an open book across my palms (aside from the usual interruptions encountered by mommies). I occasionally have trouble focusing on the 'net, but only when I'm hovering anxiously over the "next link," poised to click. I also don't give the same weight to information found online as that published in books. Now that I think of it, I guess I categorize internet reading as ephemeral stuff. I read theology, devotional matter, parenting advice, literature, biography, history, & etc. largely the old-fashioned way. I get recipes, tips, how-to's, daily news, chat, and political commentary from the internet. Why would I necessarily need to "scuba dive" into the latter?
Like everything else it comes with advantages and disadvantages. I was never affected that way. So it is something of an individual thing. In point of fact I think of the net as an addition not a subtraction to my reading experience. For instance my Kindle is a derivative of the Web.
No doubt the changes are real. Too many people in positions to know (i.e. college English professors) have been describing this problem. But the critical factor is that complaints reach back several decades before there was an Internet, much less a Google. One book I read detailed measurable declines in reading comprehension that began just after WWII. The problem is a complex one, with some factors merely time issues. A kid who spends six hours a day watching TV or playing video games has six less hours to read any book, much less a serious one. In addition, he will have his mind shaped by a different medium. He'd do some things better (fast finger twitching) and other things more poorly (follow a long and complex word-centered argument). The same is true of our national pastime, music. Much of today's popular music has no more intellectual content than a children's nursery rhyme. Spending several hours a day listening to it while walking or driving is the equivalent of reciting, "Mary had a little lamb...." That'd make anyone stupider. And much of this music is emotional and focused on the self, with lamentable results. Attempting to link Google to this problem is a distraction. Google makes no one stupid. My latest book, an in-depth look at historical issues of war and peace, would have been far more difficult without Internet search engines. What Google does do is allow is lazy, badly educated students to slap together a school paper that quotes from multiple sources, giving the illusion of more knowledge than the reader possesses. But the problem isn't Google. it's with an educational system so poor, that students are satisfied doing that sort of cut-and-paste work. Distracted by other and far shallower medias, they haven't read books that show better ways of thinking. That said, I do think technological changes have made it easier for us to spend our time in mind-numbing activities and less in mind-enhancing ones. I do read more on the Internet now, getting a richer but briefer fare, and have to discipline myself to sit down and read a book. And I do it by reminding myself how many books I used to read. For a generation that came of age after the Internet, there is no "used to." That's the real problem we face. --Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazis and World War II
"Sesame Street" did teach me to read at age two, though. True story. Even the egomaniacal projects of our media overlords can bring unintended benefits sometimes. :-) Still, as useful as the Internet undoubtedly is -- given that I too have been saved hours and hours poring through libraries and encyclopedias, I heartily endorse the use of the word "godsend" -- I can identify with Carr's realization about how it's messing with our attention spans and with our mental habits in general.
People used to be able to manage vast stores of oral information with almost no reference to books. How many can do that today?
A heavy read indeed, but not because of the word count, but the density of the language. Thinking about the way I read is a bit convicting -- multitasking, I often listen to music, carry conversations on in instant messenger, and read 2 or 3 articles or stories at once. I am beginning to find full-screen activities frustrating, even infuriating, if I cannot switch tasks on command. Unsurprisingly, I've found my writing and reading alike suffer from this madness. When I really want to write well, I have to turn away from my multiple distractions, and just write. I used to write fiction and essays with ease, now I've found over time that I write shorter and shorter poems, perhaps an indication that my self-expression suffers from some ghastly form of "blurb-itis", and I'm incapable of thinking in long form with the fluency I used to have. Which is not to call poets ADD or say that poetry is not a meaningful form of expression, but I do wonder if self-gratification doesn't play a large part in my choice of shorter writing projects.
I'm tempted to sniff (with a wink, and tongue firmly in cheek) "Pshaw - short attention spans and difficulty in reading are all the fault of TV in general and Sesame Street in particular, as we all heard years ago." However, such a short, easily-digestible comment would simply serve to underscore Carr's point. Many science fiction stories, stretching into the past beyond Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", have dealt with the hubris of science and especially the idea of a second Tower of Babel. (The chilling ultimate purpose of the original Tower was to allow humans to collaboratively overcome any need for God, making a name *for themselves*.) It's interesting, in a horrific way, to read and/or listen to the visions of founders of sites lite like Wikipedia and Google when they wax philosophical. (Interestingly, they rarely do so - preferring to be busy about their work without pondering the consequences of it, much like Dr. Frankenstein.) To me the most interesting idea in this article is the concept of authority, which has at least two meanings. One is the idea that a person's statements about a particular topic have high value due to that person's dedication to a certain area of study. The second meaning is that a person can exercise power over another person. (This derives from a more subtle notion of creative control granted as a convention due to original authorship. Clearly that has some serious theological implications.) So, if we create true artificial intelligence - a "person" inside a computer - which type of authority would such a "person" exercise? Of course, we can skip all this tedious reading and simply watch Will Smith in "I, Robot" for our answer.