Today’s post is about a long article in the Atlantic Monthly in which the author argues that the internet prevents us from focusing on long articles.
I found this piece both overly alarmist and annoyingly deterministic. Carr argues that the internet, like previous media forms, alters not only our daily habits but the very essence of our neurobiology. And because the internet is inevitably fast-paced and distracting, it results in skimming rather than “deep reading,” turning us from intelligent, thoughtful individuals to hyper, impatient and shallow cretins.
When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.
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. Leaving blinky, ad-filled sites for mature and thoughtful online spaces (which do exist,) exerting self-control when it comes to checking email and mobile phones, changing browser settings (or the browser itself) to calm your monitor down, cleaning off the desktop, making an effort to engage with serious literature and periodicals on a daily basis and leaving time for contemplation, long walks, etc. Certainly one would not argue that in public spaces you have no choice but to step in McDonalds rather than the bookstore. The same logic applies to the internet.
Carr’s piece, however, is full of this type of pronouncement. Here’s another example of the rampant determinism:
The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man.
In actuality, most historians of technology will probably tell you that the clock did not, alone, bring about a change in the mindset of society. Instead, it was the changing social sphere (the emergence of capitalism, the growth of transportation networks and the scientific revolution) that created the need for accurate clocks in the first place.
Another annoying aspect of the article is that Carr focuses on Google as a leading contributor to the problem, again, very deterministically and by making use of a bizarre comparison with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theory of scientific management. Taylor’s methods were used to control workers in factory settings, and while this did bleed over into life outside the factory, the analogy breaks down pretty quickly when it comes to the internet. The last I checked no one can force me to search more efficiently. Google may work at making the algorithms better on its end, but that doesn’t affect the way that I choose to search, the keywords I enter, or how I parse and use the results.
I understand that there are serious concerns with Google’s page ranking system, and the ways that information can be either down-ranked or promoted by the algorithms (or censored entirely,) but this doesn’t seem to be Carr’s concern. He appears more worried by the idea of search as artificial intelligence that will one day replace thinking. Is it the case that people will replace cognition with Google? Perhaps, but I believe that these are the types who would not be very thoughtful in the first place, even in a Google-free environment. Not those who are reading the Atlantic Monthly on a regular basis, certainly.
Because, wait, haven’t we heard all this before? TV springs immediately to mind. Yet the dire predictions of a zombie nation seem not to have come to pass. Some people waste their lives in front of the tv, but others who are inclined toward reading and scholarly past-times, or sports, or socializing, are not forced into zombiehood just because there is a TV in the living room. Similarly, some scholars of the early modern era bemoaned the printed book, fearing that it made possible the rise of shallow, extensive reading versus the intensive reading of a few books over the course of a lifetime.
Thus, the whole thing seems just another iteration of the old, tired complaints. I suppose that’s what’s so frustrating for me. It’s not so much his attitude to the internet, but his poor grasp of information history and historical theory in general, which disappoints but doesn’t really surprise. Carr does give a shallow overview of book history on the final page, musing that new media technologies like writing and printing have often given rise to dire predictions not unlike his. Yet in the end, he brushes off these concerns:
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
What he fails to do entirely is justify his conclusion that the internet, by its very nature, prevents “deep reading” while print, by its nature, encourages thoughtfulness. To go back to my earlier point, the internet is what you make of it, and it is as well suited a tool for intensive reading as it is for skimming the headlines, celebrity gossip and latest YouTube videos. Compared to words on screen, there is nothing intellectually special about the printed page, save for an emotional attachment that many of us feel for it, for the pleasure of holding, leafing through and smelling a book (and the fact that some people have difficulty looking at computer monitors for extended periods.) But you could just as easily pick up a printed copy of the Enquirer as a volume of Voltaire, and likewise, spend an hour engaged with a scholarly article online rather than skimming search results.
Carr ignores the more complex perspectives offered by book history and concludes by predicting a troubling future in which the internet makes us more machine-like than HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Don’t buy it.