Friday, August 01, 2008

The internet is shiny. Books are not.

Nicholas Carr for The Atlantic asks "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

It was difficult to focus long enough on the piece to find it insightful. Perhaps because it was on the internet?

This summer while I've worked at A Respected News Weekly, I've spent most of my days browsing news and political blogs, jumping, bouncing and skimming through sheaves of content.

Then I go home. And, despite being a 21st Century Internet Junkie, I sit myself down and try to read a few pages of my book (among other things, I'm partial to medieval history and classic fiction, not always known to be the most frenetic page-turners). Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes I don't get very far. Sometimes the book ends up on my chest or the far corner of the bed and I stare at the ceiling following my own thoughts for a few hours. But I wouldn't say my attention span has been shortened by the internet; simply that, at the end of the day, I don't always have the self-discipline or mental energy to press through. I'm a Young Person, I grew up with the internet and have always been fairly obsessed with it, but I've also always had a deep abiding love of books.

The internet hasn't shortened my attention span, because I've kept myself in practice reading books.

Carr opens with a comparison to the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which a computer pleads with the human who is unplugging its circuits. Carr says he feels for the computer - but no one is holding him down and pulling out his circuits. And even a symbiotic relationship with the internet (writers and newsjunkies will understand) doesn't preclude making the time to sit down and read a book. Even if it's a bit of a struggle to shift gears and fall into the slower rhythm, it's hardly similar to being the passive, captive victim of manipulation. So Google wants us to read faster and click more. They aren't invading your home and making you do it, and anyone who stops to think can find ways to avoid infohighway hypnosis.

Studies show people skim, skip and juggle when searching sites such as the British Library's collection of online resources. Big surprise. When doing extensive research, your eyes become sore staring at a screen, and printed articles are much easier to read and annotate. Other people may be ratcheting up the numbers of hits simply because, for the first time in the centuries-long history of such an institution, readers can access these materials instantly and remotely, and indulge even a passing whim of curiosity. Why linger if half the reason you're there is simply because you can be?

Carr is concerned that, by making ourselves into slaves to the internet, we will become as emotionless and mechanical as the characters in 2001; that we will lose the quiet spaces of our minds. But he seems to arrive at that fear via the assumption that healthy minds are unable to resist the internet's more stultifying effects, claiming his concerns are more realistic than those of the historic critics of printing. While he makes a beautifully eloquent case for the place of books in our intellectual lives, he doesn't seem to give the reading population at large enough credit to recognize that value independently - hence the assumption that we will become internet morons. He notes he may be dismissed as a Luddite or a nostalgic. In the end, I think that if he can give up so easily on the resilience of the mind, he may be something worse.


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