Friday Column: Is Google Making Us Read Worse?
I tried very hard to take seriously Nicholas Carr’s article in The Atlantic, which has the provocative, and lately rather fashionable, thesis that the Internet is changing the way we read. Google is making us all info-snackers in search of the quick answer; there’s so much content at hand that we can barely stand to get halfway through something before we’re jumping off to the next thing.
But when an idea becomes this popular, when it begins to develop that plasticized reek of conventional wisdom, it’s almost begging to be refuted. This is an oblique way of saying that, at this stage in the Google-is-ruining-information debate, someone looking to write an article on how the Internet is killing our attention spans needs something more substantial than the bland assertions Carr brings to the table.
Or to take on this essay from another angle, when someone gets a basic fact like this incorrect, it’s an indication that he’s not being especially rigorous in his theorizing:
Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese,
develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the
circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an
One problem: Chinese doesn’t consist of ideograms. No, it consists of characters that stand for morphemes, which are similar to syllables found in languages formed with the Roman alphabet. That this small fact completely subverts Carr’s example is emblematic of the problems confronting the essay a whole. For more on this, just wait till we get to Nietzsche’s typewriter.
I picked up the information about the Chinese language while reading a book (one about the deciphering of ancient Mayan, another character-based language that doesn’t consist of ideograms), and the fact that I read said book all the way to the end makes me a sort of rarity, at least according to Carr’s anecdotal research into his friends’ Internet-ravaged reading habits. I maintain the ability to read lengthy texts despite regular exposure to the Internet, and among Carr’s circle that makes me pretty special:
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. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about
online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books
Okay, a confession: I’m not special. I’m just normal, or maybe a little too smart for my own good. I’m not sure, but what I will state with full confidence is that anyone who uses the Internet regularly retains full capacity to read a book. It’s not very hard. What’s hard is leaping from Carr’s stories about his friends to any meaningful warning about the Internet’s effects on our reading habits.
Similarly, Carr’s tale about the miraculous transformation of Nietzsche’s style after he bought a typewriter is simply too good to believe. We are supposed to believe that suddenly after Nietzsche bought a typewriter "his already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic." We might say with equal authority that Nietzsche’s meeting with Lou Andreas Salomé in 1882, falling in love with her, and having suicidal thoughts after the relationship ended badly curtailed his time and forced him to write more epigrammatically.
But even if there is a grain of truth to Carr’s Neitzsche story, what does it prove? Most of the great Modernist texts were composed on a typewriter, and many of them happen to not be particularly short and not particularly light. And what to make of the authors writing on PCs–a quantum leap over typewriters? They’ve managed to write incredibly long, complex novels.
My point is, yes the medium will have some effect, but people aren’t automatons. (Well, at least not the ones worth talking to.) We can overcome whatever the medium dictates to us.
I do agree with Carr’s assertions that the Internet is changing the way previous media are used–that is, the Internet is swallowing up radio, TV, magazines, and newspapers whole and regurgitating Internet-digested versions of them that are quickly becoming the norm. This is quite clearly true, and this will transform the way in which things are presented on these media. It’s already happening and, as Carr demonstrates, it’s completely normal.
I’ll even go so far as to agree with Carr that the fabric of the human mind is malleable, and that certain things we can do–like learn to speak and read in a second language–can make permanent changes to our neural pathways.
But it’s a pretty big leap from here to saying that the Internet is making us incapable of reading book-length, or even essay-length texts. Over the past two years I’ve become proficient in Spanish, and, yes, I can feel the rewiring when I occasionally bring Spanish grammar into an English sentence. But, clearly, I maintain my ability to speak and function in English just as well as before I rewired my brain. I haven’t lost any of my previous English-ability just by learning something new–if anything Spanish has enriched my English in ways I never would have anticipated
Similarly, I understand that the Internet has changed the way I look at a text, and staring at a screen full of tantalizing essays can make it difficult to pay attention. Heck, I’ve got 11 tabs open in Firefox right now with untold thousands of eruditely arranged words screaming for my attention. I know what it feels like to want to read it all right this second.
I might add that I also felt that way long, long before I ever became addicted to the Internet. In fact, I once got and still get this dangerous sensation from books. That is, I feel the anxiety that any booklover feels when contemplating a "to be read" stack just like I feel the information overload of a full feed of content. This is not that new for me, and, I suspect, for many others.
What I’m saying is that responsible adults have been and will continue to be threatened with noisy, seductive, multiple distractions. And just as responsible adults have done for a long, long time, I’m fully able to turn down the noise, take my books and articles one by one, and give each the attention it deserves.
Or to put it another way, if we’re all a bunch of info-junkies tripping our way toward Internet-ADD, then why was one of the longest, most challenging texts to emerge in English in years the "big book" of BEA?
In the end, I think Carr ends up committing the very same mistake that he chides Google for:
Still, [Google's] easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our
brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial
intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is
the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can
be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we
enter when we go online, 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.
Obviously the human brain isn’t just another machine. And since it’s not, Carr should know that the brain isn’t so easy to mess around with. I recently read that there are more potential neural pathways in the average brain than there are particles in the universe. Lots more.
The brain is so huge and amazing and enormously complex that it’s far, far off base to think that a few years of Internet media or the acquisition of a typewriter can fundamentally rewire it. Yes, its true that, our machines will have an impact on our lives, but that doesn’t mean that we’re just machines too.
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