Yesterday I said this on twitter:
now suffering reading fatigue. i think this may be a chronic rather than acute illness
It’s the sort of half-idea I often tweet out. But I have noticed that I find it harder and harder to persist with non-fiction books, essays and longer blog posts.
ksfranck tweeted this back:
A bad case of internet induced ADD? viz. Nick Carr: https://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google
I’ve seen mention of that article before, and this prompted to read it (well, some of it I skimmed). It’s full of interesting ideas about how our thinking can be shaped by technology. I’m guessing a sub-editor gave it the title – “Is google making us stupid?” because Carr’s prose is much less dogmatic than that.
The core of his argument seems to be that we’re in danger of outsourcing our thinking to systems that operate mechanically:
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 The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.
I’m the first to lament treating humans in mechanistic ways but there’s a big difference between a system called Google, and a system in which human beings use Google. Google may not handle ambiguity, but I think we can.
Carr is also concerned about our shortening attention spans (this is where my tweet comes in, I guess). But I would disagree that this means we are becoming more computer-like in our thinking. I’d argue that we are inherently conversational, relational thinkers and that the net allows us to work more in a way that suits us better – finding one idea, being provoked to look for related ideas elsewhere, and joining them together.
It was older technology and distribution that gave us the more linear experience of reading long books and essays. In that world, it made sense to read to the end as there was less other stuff available. So maybe we just associated persistence with long books with intelligence, accidentally lending status to verbosity?
Carr is very concerned about contemplation. Well I’m hugely in favour of reflection and contemplation, but I don’t think I’d equate contemplation with the willingness to read long books. In fact, one of things that makes me contemplate is the collision of ideas. For instance, when ksfrank tweeted me back yesterday, I was prompted to reflect quite a lot. Hence this post. I think I get more of that kind of collision in online discussion than I do reading most books.
I think the linear is overrated, and there’s no inherent merit in long books and articles.
(I’m also reminded of The Alphabet versus the Goddess which I blogged about last year. The author argues that literacy itself promoted linear, abstract predominantly masculine thinking at the expense of more holistic, intuitve feminine thinking. He goes on to propose that tv and internet are shifting us back to more imagistic thinking, reversing that bias.)