Sunday, June 15, 2008

Has the Internet Changed How We Read?

Courtesy of Max Boot at Commentary, I came across a truly provocative essay from the July/August 2008 Atlantic Monthly. According to author Nicholas Carr, the Internet is literally changing not only the way that we read, but also the way we think:

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.)

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.

In linking to this essay, Max Boot argues in defense of the Internet as a research tool:

For my part, I haven’t noticed my attention flagging because of the Internet. What I have noticed is that the Internet makes it much easier to produce longer pieces of writing. Google, especially, is invaluable, and not only because it enables anyone to look up obscure facts with a few keystrokes. Another function of Google is less famous but growing in importance for those of us in the book-writing biz — namely its “book” search function. Google has digitized thousands of volumes, allowing researchers to easily find obscure tomes. While no preview is available of many recently published books, and others offer only a “snippet view,” growing numbers of books whose copyright have lapsed are available in “full” search mode, meaning that you can, if you so desire, read the entire book online — or, more likely, print it out.

I have found this to be in invaluable resource while researching my new history of guerrilla warfare. It used to take me a long time to get books via interlibrary loan, and then the 19th century volumes usually arrived in very poor conditions. Now for nothing more than the cost of the paper and ink I can get printer-fresh copies of General Phil Sheridan’s memoirs, George Macaulay Trevelyan’s classic volumes on Garibaldi, or the Rev. James Gordon’s “History of the Rebellion in Ireland in the Year 1798.” Moreover, if necessary, I can use Google to search for keywords inside the books.

Boot is certainly correct that the Internet has made it much easier to find a wider variety of sources and streamlined the research process. This is especially true of research involving non-copyrighted materials. Carr does not dispute this point. However, I do think Carr is right to argue that the advent of online information sources has fostered a culture of skimming versus reading. I'm not necessarily sure that this is due to our brains being rewired as it is to more mundane factors. While it is quite possible that the Internet is subtly altering how we think, the real issue is that the ability to retrieve large amounts of information almost instantaneously is making us impatient and frankly lazy.

The Web is an invaluable research tool when used properly. However, it can easily lead to intellectual laziness and superficial reasoning. Instead of using the Internet in conjunction with traditional print sources, many people, especially the young, now often use it as a substitute for them. This has led to the twin fallacies that "everything is online" and print resources are not worth using. If you can't find it through Google, then it must not exist. In addition, both the quantity of information available and the nature of reading off a computer screen discourage people from wanting to read large blocks of text.

One recent example is this blog post at Jewcy about "Neoconservatism". Basically, the author of the post, Daniel Koffler, defines "Neoconservatism" as simply being whatever he doesn't like. When challenged by a commenter, Koffler responds by saying that "15 minutes max with google will tell you everything you could ever want to know" about how "Neoconservatives" view issues such as torture and diplomacy. The mix of arrogance and laziness contained in that statement is mind boggling. Sadly, it is now all too typical.

Admittedly blogging is not exactly conducive to in-depth scholarly analysis. This is as true of my writings as of those found on any other blog. "Googling" sources is an essential part of blogging: both because it is fairly quick and because it allows your readers to easily explore your sources for themselves. However, the majority of the human record, especially that portion covered by copyright, remains unavailable online. While a Google book preview can be useful for finding a quick fact or supporting a relatively brief argument, for in-depth research there is no substitute for having the entire text available.

In short, while I think Carr makes a very interesting case, the main impact of the Internet on how we read and think has been behavioral, not biological.


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