Thursday, June 12, 2008

On the Internet and Reading

One of yesterday's enjoyments after I got my work done was a browse through the newest Atlantic, the cover story of which is Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Carr argues - using little but anecdotal evidence - that Internet-based reading (not really Google on its own, but I guess that made a more catchy headline) is changing the way we read and process what we read. He writes "... 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."

Carr quotes Maryanne Wolf, developmental psychologist and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, who "worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts 'efficiency' and 'immediacy' above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, 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."

Following this argument, Carr discusses ways in which "old media" have adopted Web-like strategies ("Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets"), and 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." Then he moves on, for some reason, to discuss a perceived jive between scientific management theory and Google's "pursuit" of artificial intelligence.

Some of Carr's points I don't necessarily disagree with: it's definitely true that reading on the Internet is a very different animal than reading from a book. When online, I find myself with an ever-present plethora of at least four or five Firefox tabs (five at the moment, plus NPR's media player), which I flick through incessantly as new emails appear or new links come dripping into my Google Reader (which I'd already affectionately nicknamed the Skimmer even before I read Carr's article). But just because I read that way online doesn't mean I can't settle down with a book and read deeply ... in fact, I enjoy that much more. I just read Internet things quickly because I don't particularly enjoy staring at a computer screen. For long articles, I print them out and read them later (you'll notice I've linked to the online version of Carr's article, but I actually read it from the paper magazine).

Naturally, as I was writing this post, Laura's take on Carr's article came across the transom (and yes, I stopped to check the Skimmer when it came through). She is, of course, correct to say "In reality the internet, or any other form of technology, is what we make of it, guided by both individuals and by social norms or institutions. It’s easy enough to avoid the condition that Carr describes simply by altering the way you interact with the internet." But I don't quite agree that the Internet is, as she says, "as well suited a tool for intensive reading as it is for skimming the headlines, celebrity gossip and latest YouTube videos." It's an excellent delivery system - getting material for reading has never been easier - but I've never found it a very pleasant place for doing the actual reading. A tiny quibble, though, with what is an excellent critique of Carr's article. Read the whole thing.

In short, as with all media, the Internet can be put to good use, and it can be overused to the point of driving one to utter distraction. In Carr's case, it might be time to unplug the computer for a while and hunker down with a pile of good books.