Nicholas Carr didn’t convince me

On: October 19, 2011
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About Demet Dagdelen
My name is Demet and I am deeply dippy with all things digital. I am Turkish-Kurdish but I've been living in Hungary for the last 11 years, currently I am in Amsterdam doing an MA in New Media at the UvA. I am interested in the flow of information in a multi-platform environment and the role of the middlemen in the web ecology. Currently I am writing my -very data-driven - thesis on Anonymous. I have a BA in Communication and Media Studies from Hungary and I used to do a BSc in Mathematics, but I just transferred to Computer Science, which brings me tons of excitement and joy every day. Really, it does.

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I came upon an article today that said that research shows that Facebook popularity might be predicted by brain regions or in more sensational terms “Facebook may be changing people’s brains“. The research was based on 165 people: “One limitation of the study was that researchers couldn’t say which came first  –  whether large social networks cause thickening of certain brain areas, or larger areas of certain brain regions cause one to have larger social networks. The idea that an action can change the brain has been shown in past research; for instance, studies suggest physical training can actually bulk up regions of the brain’s motor cortex.”

I think that this limitation turns all these sensational titles into pure lies. Also, on a related topic, whilst arguing over a topic in class, a classmate told me to look up Nicholas Carr’s article: Is Google Making Us Stupid? I did, and I didn’t like it at all. I have copy pasted the article here and have written in bold, the reasons why I don’t think this article presents a valid argument.

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial “ brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

I can feel it, too. 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.)

Correlation does not imply causation. If anecdotes from one’s life can serve as a basis, then I will tell one as well. When I was a little kid, adults around me would tell me how they were jealous of the amount of books I read, and when I asked them why didn’t they just read more if this was something they wanted to do, they’d tell me that they didn’t have the time or the desire anymore, like they used and that they were too busy. This was a common occurrence, people would tell me about how they also used to read a lot when they were young but then they stopped for some reason. And this “some reason” wasn’t the web, because nobody really was online back then.  I don’t believe this proves anything, it is just a counter-anecdote.

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And 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.

A good question to ask would be, why is the Net distributing the information it does, the way it does? McLuhan is a technological determinist, but there are lots of valid arguments that come from researchers who are not, who argue that the media is the way it is, because it is adapting to people’s expectations (Carr also mentions this later, but he only uses this argument when it serves the point he is trying to make).

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 altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

Another anecdote.

Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

And another one.

Anecdotes alone don’t prove much. And we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition. But a recently published study of online research habits , conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. The authors of the study report:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Finally, Carr admits that anecdotes alone don’t prove much (I’d say that in most cases, they don’t prove anything). This is where the article becomes interesting, I think. There is a basic assumption throughout this writing that skimming activity is bad. It makes you stupid, because people should rather invest time in reading things that are irrelevant to what they are looking for, rather than find the relevant papers. This research from UCL was done on research sites, to me it shows that people who are looking for papers that might be relevant to their research interests don’t read the ones that are not. I have no idea how else to interpret it, but in the context of Carr’s argument, this somehow becomes something negative. I will get back to this point, but first, I’d like to express my outrage at the way Carr treated the UCL research. It took me a lot of time finding the paper he is quoting here (the link doesn’t direct there anymore), but the research is pointing out, in a very clear way, that Carr’s argument is void and naive, and that it is a myth, mostly propelled by people who also say things like “the Google generation”, “digital natives”..etc. Carr decided to quote the above sentence from the article, probably because that is the only thing that he can use to support his argument. I will now quote other findings:

“Academic users have strong consumer instincts and research shows that they will squirrel away content in the form of downloads, especially when there are free offers. In spite of this behaviour and the very short session times that we witness, there is no evidence as to the extent to which these downloads are actually read.”

Because no research has been done into whether people read the documents they download, we can’t assume either way.

“There is little direct evidence that young people’s information literacy is any better or worse than before.”

There are tons of anecdotes, though. I guess anecdotes aren’t something real research is based upon.

“The age differences are startling and they suggest that the shift away from the physical to the virtual library will accelerate very rapidly and that tools like GoogleScholar will be increasingly a real and present threat to the library as an institution.”

I don’t think that anyone, but people with romantic ideas about libraries (and I am one of them, I love libraries), will cry over this. We want relevant information and we want it fast, we will go to whoever source that delivers on these desires. If libraries want to continue on being relevant, they should pay attention to their competitions, this will only give us more options to choose from.

“The  literature also shows that many of these characteristics pre-date the web (as studies in the 1980s on CDROM, for example, demonstrate) and so they cannot be projected on to the internet as something completely new.”

I wish more people with opinions about what the “Internet does” to our society would actually look into the research as opposed to looking around them and assuming that just because a dozen of people in their lives do something a certain way, it must mean that it is a universal “finding”.

“There is very little evidence of generational shifts in the literature:  that Google generation youngsters are fundamentally `different’ from what went before. This is of course difficult to interpret: there are no longitudinal studies to show one way or the other. On balance, the literature appears to point to a big distinction between young children and teenage groups, probably due to the fact that small  children have not yet developed the cognitive and motor skills to be effective searchers.”

Oh yes, so it is a more complex issue than realizing that the fact that some people around you don’t read as much as they used to correlates to the fact that they are spending more time online. There are psychological variants as well, and that is just the beginning.

” [Myth or fact?] They  prefer quick information in the form of easily digested chunks, rather than full text***

Our verdict: This is a myth. CIBER deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, `flicking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.”

And this is where the research cited by Carr contradicts everything he is saying in this article. It seems like Carr just “power skimmed” this study.

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.

Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. 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 alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

Also see:

Living With a Computer

(July 1982) “The process works this way. When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen…” By James Fallows

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

This is an argument that is supported by a vast corpus of research (and debated as well). An anecdote -even though it is about Nietzsche, so extremely entertaining- could have been followed by presenting works of Ong on orality, literacy and secondary orality. I actually agree  with Carr here, it is just that it isn’t Carr who has convinced me with the Nietzsche anecdote, but Ong who has done it through providing a clear theoretical argument. Back to supporting the claim with an anecdote, this is where Carr should’ve just used another personal experience or one of his close friends or something, because Nietzsche only wrote 60 pieces of documents using a typewriter, it had lots of technical problems, had to be sent to get repaired a lot…etc. Here is a book that includes everything Nietzsche has ever written using a typewriter, he used it for 6 weeks to write: “15 letters, 1 postcard as well as 34 bulk sheets (including some poems and verdicts) with his ‘Schreibkugel’ from Malling Hansen in 1882.”  So there isn’t even a correlation here, let alone a causation.

The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”

Yes, this is how the brain works. Everything has a neurological response, obviously.

As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”

The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976 book,Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.

The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.

So what Carr is saying here is that our brains will change, because of the way we think of it. So, because this is not just a metaphor but also an adaptation, I guess we can also say -using his logic- that our brains used to actually operate like clocks.

The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.

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.

The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. 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. When, in March of this year, TheNew York Times decided to devote the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts , its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts” would give harried readers a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “less efficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.

So, traditional media is adapting to audience’s expectations, but new media is just influencing people (and other media). I couldn’t agree less with this point of view. There is a two-way connection between media and audiences, media will always have to provide audiences with something they want to engage with and in turn audiences will get influenced. The influence is never as straightforward as Carr puts it, I don’t think any theorist or researcher would say what Carr is saying here and not get ridiculed for thinking so simplistically. The whole premise of services we use online rely on feedback, as danah body calls it, on the internet we live in a state of “perpetual beta”. Google will arrange its search results based on -amongst other things- what people who searched for the same or a similar term clicked on, Gmail changed the position of various buttons on its interface based on how much its users clicked on various buttons, the main advantage an online newspaper has over its paper-based one is that the editors actually know which articles got read the most, so they know what people are interested in. Huffington Post is constantly using this data gathered by looking at the behavior of its audience to optimize their newspaper better (there are of course serious problems with this data-driven user studies approach when it comes to journalism, but that is not the point here). The way things online look the way they do isn’t because some internet-god made them the way they are, we are constantly shaping this ecology by how we behave online. New media have little choice but to play by the audience rules.

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. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.

No, it doesn’t. I don’t even know where to start, but here is a quick Google search.

About the same time that Nietzsche started using his typewriter, an earnest young man named Frederick Winslow Taylor carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Philadelphia and began a historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plant’s machinists. With the approval of Midvale’s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on various metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every movement as well as the operations of the machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then testing different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructions—an “algorithm,” we might say today—for how each worker should work. Midvale’s employees grumbled about the strict new regime, claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the factory’s productivity soared.

More than a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution had at last found its philosophy and its philosopher. Taylor’s tight industrial choreography—his “system,” as he liked to call it—was embraced by manufacturers throughout the country and, in time, around the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used time-and-motion studies to organize their work and configure the jobs of their workers. The goal, as Taylor defined it in his celebrated 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, was to identify and adopt, for every job, the “one best method” of work and thereby to effect “the gradual substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.” Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency. “In the past the man has been first,” he declared; “in the future the system must be first.”

Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”

Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California—the Googleplex—is the Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does. Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data it collects through its search engine and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.

Google’s search engine is an awfully important and influential tool, it reflects what the internet using society finds credible and important, but it is only the entry point to the web. Google is not doing the “work of the mind”, it is doing the work of a catalogue. Search is not a purely mental activity, it has never been one. It is indexing webpages the way a librarian indexed written works, and through a brilliant algorithm it gives us the relevant ones. When going to a library and using the catalogue, I am not just thinking and doing some sort of a mental activity, I am doing something similar to what Google does for me in an automated way but it is in no way “a work of mind”.

The company has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine,” which it defines as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.

Is anyone arguing this? Does anybody actually think that we should be less efficient, not use the resources that we have available to its full potential? Whether information can  be mined and processed with industrial efficiency is something Google has to worry about, but assuming that it is, would we not want that? Making something fast and efficient doesn’t make it less worthy. The quality of research doesn’t stem from how much time it took to get there, it stems from its content.

Where does it end? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview withNewsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?

Still, their 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.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-efficiency data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

I actually agree with Carr here, this is what K. Hayles calls “The Regime of Computation” and it has far more severe consequences than getting distracted easily (which Carr still hasn’t convinced me as happening as the result of the Net).

Maybe I’m just a worrywart. 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).

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.

So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. 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.

The only problem with this passage is that Carr is somehow certain that being online leads to not participating in deep reading and so far studies (even the only one that he cited) show that there is no causation effect between these two activities, he is solely basing it on anecdotes. The estimated number of best-selling books sold that were published after 1997 is 1483 million, this isn’t taking into account any book that was published before then or any book that has not sold more than 10 million copies (source: Wikipedia) But it is true that people read less and less; until now, this has been attributed mostly to people watching television instead, obviously we can blame the internet for it now:

“IT PROBABLY GOES BACK to our earliest ancestors. When something horrible happens in our community, we want to find a reason, an explanation for the horror. Because if we don’t, that means that somehow things happen to us over which we have no control and no understanding. So, when a couple of teenagers kill at random, we have to find an explanation. In the 20th century, the explanation for such behavior always has been the media–from the tabloid press to the dime novels to silent films; then sound movies, radio, comic books, television, and now video games and the Internet.” (Joe Saltzman)

If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

I am not saying that the internet (or any other form of media that we are surrounded with) does not affect the way we think, I am just saying that there is no research to show exactly in what way it does. Once again, what is flattening our intelligence is not likening it to artificial intelligence, but as seeing complicated things (effects of media on people and society) in such a simple way. All in all, Carr’s article hasn’t convinced me that Google is making us stupid, I actually believe that articles like this, that give no supporting evidence to the opinions inside it, that cite sources that make their arguments void (probably assuming that most people will not look into the source, because after all, we are “power skimmers”) might end up making us stupid.  The problem is, all these relevant issues and questions raised by Carr should be researched, and as seen in any study (e.g. the UCL research from 2008 that I also quoted from) the sample should be large and the longitudinal research should span over at least 1,5 decades in order to be taken into consideration, because otherwise we are left with the same questions as with the research that I opened with: does the internet cause this or do people who already have these characteristics just find a way to use the internet to fit their personalities?

The only problem that Carr points out, namely not being able to engage in Deep Reading because of how the Net is reprogramming us, has been debated in a very similar manner about the telegraph, journalism and any other text-based medium. This is not something new, it has been said before about the reigning mediums of the ages before ours.

It is a shame that this article is being so widely read and cited, because these are important questions that “cyber-utopians” choose not to deal with, but I really don’t think an under-researched, anecdote-filled opinion piece is the right way to go about it.

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