Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I’m Going Crazy. . .But So Are You

One of the great disappointments in life is that almost nothing we do is unique.

Have you got the most remarkable hangnail in history? Sorry. You can go on-line and find dozens of pictures of every type of hangnail known to man, including yours.

Get fired? Believe me, there are entire chapters in books not only about getting fired, but about getting fired in exactly the way you got fired. Verbatim on what your boss said. Verbatim on how you responded. (Good advice on what you should have said.)

Going a little bit crazy?

Ah ha. Even that.

A few years ago—I’m going to set the date at 2004, exactly a decade after Google launched—I began finding it difficult to read anything more than a few paragraphs. I could do it, but what used to come naturally was now work. I wanted to skim. I wanted to be the second-coming of Evelyn Wood. I wanted to get the page turned so I could get on with it, whatever it turned out to be on the next page.

I thought I was going just a little bit crazy.

It turns out, I was. And still am. And, according to Nicholas Carr’s sobering article in the July/August 2008 Atlantic, entitled, "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?", so are you.

And, as your willing enabler, I’m going to summarize the article for you, just in case you can no longer sit and read five pages of magazine text.

First comes Carr’s reassurance that we’re all in this together:
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.
Already I was feeling better. At least two of us were going crazy.

But soon after, I was feeling worse. Because, Carr suggests, unless we’re willing to change the way we interact with the Net, we’re probably rewiring our brains, just as we did when the clock, the book, the printing press and the typewriter entered the lives of our ancestors.

Here are the key takeaways from Carr’s article:
1. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

2. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “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?”

3. A recently published study of online research habits from the University College London suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars found that people using two popular websites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.

4. When we read online we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

5. As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.

6. Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful. He had been forced to curtail his writing. But the typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page. But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

7. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV. When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.
8. In Google’s world, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web, the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

9. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

10. Carr concludes, “Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.”
Here’s something I worry about as it relates to my business life. There’s a kind of creativity and innovation that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “connecting-the-dots.” It involves taking two or four or a dozen disparate ideas and morphing them into something brand new. In my experience, it’s usually done in a quiet place, over an extended time, when the mind is able to seek and search.

I’m worried that the web is stealing that kind of creativity from us. This desire to skim across the top of information impacts our products and our art and our writing. Maybe even our relationships. So, it’s not just about reading differently, it’s about doing everything differently.

Maybe better. Maybe not. And by the time we know, it’ll be very late in the game.

So, I am going crazy. But so are you. (And, no disrespect intended, but I'm a bit more concerned about the former.)

We'd both know more about it if we could just concentrate long enough to read Nicholas Carr's upcoming book.

You first.