I just read a great article in The Atlantic that has stirred up some passionate, thoughtful debate on the internet. The article was written by Nicholas Carr and explores — in very human, accessible terms — “what the internet is doing to our brains.” Or, as one observer put it: This-is-your-brain-on-the-internet.
Here’s the link to the full piece. I strongly recommend you check it out.
A brief taste:
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.
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)
Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf 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.
In The Sunday New York Times, there was a front-page piece on a similar theme: “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” It’s not that younger people aren’t reading, it’s that they are using the internet so much more, and books far less, to the point where the nature of reading itself has shifted. Some feel that the internet is the enemy of reading — a danger, a threat — while others are more optimistic.
What is lost? What is gained?
I don’t think anyone knows the answers, but something significant has changed. I suppose the publishing business is about to undergo the same kind of huge tidal shift that’s been ongoing in the music business, where all the old models of commerce no longer work, and where new delivery systems seem to alter the very nature of the content itself (and certainly the economics of art, and the survival, gulp, of artists).
Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind these days. Read and enjoy and, yes, comment if you wish.
Lastly, here’s another brief article, this one from Jim Trelease (of The Read-Aloud Handbook fame), who states “the news is far from gloom and doom.” He’s all about turning lemons into lemonade.
Final Comment: Obviously, I LOVE BOOKS. But maybe just as obviously, I LOVE THE INTERNET, TOO. Look at what this blog post accomplishes, and how it functions, how it delivers content in a choose-your-own-path, non-linear way. There are links on top of links, bringing the reader to direct source material, and live reader responses, and other blogs, all with their own myriad links for the reader to explore, in a flash that no book can possibly match. The Information Super Highway, Baby. Beep-beep!
Jimmy: First of all, thanks for posting about the Atlantic article by Nicholas Carr; I was unaware of it. The whole text appears to be online. It’s as frightening a piece of prose as I’ve skimmed for a long time. For months, perhaps years, I’d been feeling this same inability to persist with a text, and thought it was only me, without realizing that it may be web habits that created it and continue it. And more frightening, because we — and I mean writers — are at the greatest risk. Sorry, not writers, who are a dime a dozen, so much as literature itself. If we impose limits on what is now readable (i.e., short, bite-size episodes, quickly scanned and absorbed), we have seriously reduced, perhaps killed, the huge part literature plays in our civilization. And to that I say, Yikes. Almost too bad that Y2K didn’t knock out electricity for a few years.
— Tony Abbott
Tony, that’s a hysterical line, given the context: “It’s as frightening a piece of prose as I’ve skimmed for a long time.”
While there are frightening aspects to The Death of All Literature, I’m not thoroughly depressed by it . . . yet. As Carr wrote later in the article:
>> Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom). >>