Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Web Giveth, and the Web Taketh Away


Sometime around 2004, 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 hard work.  My eye danced over sentences.  My default seemed not to read, but to skim. I thought I was going just a little bit crazy.

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

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.
Carr suggests--unless we’re willing to change the way we interact with the Net--that 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. Media are not just passive channels of information but also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at our capacity for concentration and contemplation.  Our minds now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.  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?”

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.  And 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.

5. 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.

6. Here's the problem: 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.

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.”

Our ability to form associations and draw analogies is what we call creativity, the product of which is often invention and sometimes innovation.  How ironic would it be if the thing that we use to connect, communicate, and create is the very thing robbing us of creativity?