Friday, June 13, 2008

The Atlantic: Is Google Making Us Stoopid?

This article by Nicholas Carr in the current Atlantic Monthly has been engendering a fair amount of discussion around the web, mostly centering on the following passages:

"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. "


"For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but 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.

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon."

I flit about the internets about as much as anyone, but I can't personally say that I have experienced the phenomenon that Carr describes. I read as many books as I ever have and still keep a large number of books going at the same time. This is a habit Steve and I share that we have discussed here a number of times and something I've done since I learned to read. I've also always been a fast reader. In high school, I dropped out of a speed-reading class when I found my own "system" already had me reading at speeds they were trying to teach.

The only change I can really see in my reading habits is that I have an increasing tendency to read non-fiction in a non-linear fashion. I read lots of history and find I often jump into sections of books that I find most interesting and then will back-track to fill in context if I need it. Sometimes I find I have read almost an entire book with the chapters in reverse order.

I have been seeing this as something positive and feeling that I am reading more efficiently - digging out data I want more quickly than plodding from pages 1 to n. It hadn't occurred to me that this might be an "internet effect" if indeed it is.

I've been wondering how the people who hang out here at the Querencia blog feel about this. Do you believe the internet is changing the way you read and "remapping" your circuitry?


mdmnm said...

"Do you believe the internet is changing the way you read and 'remapping' your circuitry?"


I have less interest in newspaper and some sorts of magazines, as the internet has provided a greater wealth of essays and news pieces, but I haven't noticed anything close to "remapping". Then again, 90% of my pleasure reading is pretty light stuff, so maybe my circuitry was off to begin with.

Pluvialis said...

I suffer from this badly. Find it difficult these days to read content-rich books properly; more and more I'm using google for research and snippet-finding, and the only books I'm comfortable reading cover to cover are single-sitting detective stories and sci-fi novels. Also, oddly, Classical lit and fifteenth and sixteenth-century stuff. Which seem far more amenable to my googled brain. And I'm also finding it difficult to write in long arcs; blog-style snippets and pieces seem the 'natural' way to write these days, in tune with my scattered brain. Which is interesting and more than a bit scary.

Henry Chappell said...

I don't think so. I read a few less books per year now that I'm reading blogs and online articles, but I haven't noticed changes in my attention span, and I don't think blogging has changed my writing tendencies. But, as some of you have noticed, I'm not a prolific blogger.

I wonder if age has anything to do with it. I was in my mid-30s before I started using search engines and well into my 40s when I started reading blogs. The author of the Atlantic piece stressed the fact that older brains can still be re-mapped, but I have to think that the reading and writing habits of middle-aged farts like me are a little more set.

LabRat said...

No. I'm another of those that learned to read early (I was around 3) and made a lifelong habit of reading whenever and wherever I was able. I actually start to feel mentally and psychologically worse off if I don't keep the flow of books going, but this is probably a function of my solitary tendencies- internet reading is always more interactive, and I have limited supplies of sociability. Reading books is Me Time.

I will say, though, that my ability to concentrate is becoming context-dependent. I can blaze through dense, content-rich books at the same speed I always did, but I don't have the patience for long, rich blog posts that I once did. I start wishing they were in books, and neurotically skipping around reading other things while I chip away at the long essay. I actually blame tabbed browsing for this; I've gotten way too used to having 3-5 tabs on totally different subjects open at once. Hell, it's that way even when I'm WRITING a blog post. I stick with the writing, but keep flipping my other tabs like channels to follow my line of thought.

Unlike Henry, I started heavily using the internet when I was about fourteen. Hmmm...

Mike Spies said...

nsMaybe the problem is that the ease of 'random access information' seduces us.

I have become impatient for information that I formerly had to tease out of books. The 'net provides mountains of data, images, information of all types boiled down to fit a screen, but strips away a lot of the richness and leaves us with self-inflicted 'factoid bites' that I am tempted to substitute for the fuller understanding gotten from reading.

Often I have no sense of who the writer is. Editing is often absent. The information is free but how can I gauge the worth of it?

Sometimes I find I must leave my machine, take a book off the shelf, and just sit down, slow down, and read. There is some mystery to books that challenges me to read them. I browse book stores, but not I do not find any mystery in the Internet.

Rambling, I know, but McLuhan was right, and the media has so altered the message that our reality has made a huge shift while we weren't looking.

Matt Mullenix said...

I'll tell you one psychological effect I'm sure comes from the Internet specifically, and more broadly from the rest of our closely-shared material culture: everyone I know if accoustomed to knowing the same things at the same depth and at the same time.

Between Youtube, Yahoo news, email, Google and wikipedia, we are all repeating the same soundbites to each other.

This may just be me in my office circle; we're all on the computer all day long and (as now) often at night. If I had an outdoor job it might be different. Or better.

I still read, and I still read some non-mainstream literature, like falconry books and Berry essays. I find the knowledge gained there doesn't flow far outside my own head. Trying to fit topics into conversation that are outside the 10-15 current memes is almost impossible. Listeners stop listening, or rather stop even pretending to listen.

Reading aside, is conversation dead? Is it still possible to learn something from another human being directly? Is it possible to learn something unique and to trust it's value without having been first vetted through Yahoo news?

This to me is the more serious implication of instantaneous culture.

Pardon my spelling. I know it's bad.

Henry Chappell said...

Well, LabRat, I guess you're just an old fart waiting to happen. I'd make one of those smiley things, but I'm just too ancient and set in my ways for that.

Seriously, maybe it's a matter of culture and basic temperament rather that age.


Steve Bodio said...

I agree with both Henry and LabRat. I read a LOT of books and absolutely must-- and I read hard science (mostly biology, evo, dinos, Pleistocene stuff, dogs herpetology), sci- fi, good thrillers, a BIT of literary fiction, biography, anything about Central Asia.

Let's come up on this another way. Beside the computer, read and awaiting comment, area book on English shotguns,a Harry Crews memoir, , an account of African herpetology,, Dog Man and two dino books, and the most recent novel by J P S Brown. Awaiting reading are Peter Matthiessen's reworking of his Florida trilogy, a Chinese translation (Wolf Totem) a book by Chuck Bowden on the Seirra Madre, The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, a work about a gifted herpetologist who was bitten by a krait in Burma, and a few thrillers.

I am also trying to fight a bad case of the blues, finish more of my dog book, get out from under last year's book problems, raise a baby bird...

Long blog posts, as LabRat says, are hard right now. Reading isn't; nor is surfing.

Mike Spies said...

rSteve -- Did Peter Matthiessen redo the series - 'Killing Mr. Watson", 'Lost Man's River', and 'Bone by Bone'? I thought they were terrific when I read them the first time.

Henry Chappell said...

Mike, I believe there's a new Modern Library edtion of the three novels. NYROB ran a good reveiw several weeks ago.

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