THE INTERNET AS "INFOCRACK"Nicholas Carr
at Rough Type
has two posts on the cognitive effect the internet may be having on thinking. In his first post " A beautiful mindlessness
" Carr observes:"Like me, you've probably sensed the same thing, in yourself and in others - the way the constant collection of information becomes an easy substitute for trying to achieve any kind of true understanding. It seems a form of laziness as much as anything else, a laziness that the internet both encourages and justifies. The web is "a hall of mirrors" that provides the illusion of thinking, Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library Association, tells Orlowski. "No one would tell you a student using Google today is producing work as good as they were 20 years ago using printed sources. Despite these amazing technical breakthroughs, these technologies haven't added to human wellbeing."
In his follow up post
, Carr argues the following:"The more we suck in information from the blogosphere or the web in general, the more we tune our minds to brief bursts of input. It becomes harder to muster the concentration required to read books or lengthy articles - or to follow the flow of dense or complex arguments in general. Haven't you, dear blog reader, noticed that, too?"
There is probably something to Carr's second post because he is referencing the creation of a psychological habit. The Buddhist maxim " What we think we become" can also very easily be expressed as " How we think we become". Short attentions spans are also natural to human beings - intense powers of concentration are usually acquired by practicing activities that are predicated on that skill-set, like learning a musical instrument, martial arts, meditation, mathematical problem-solving, various complex athletic activities and so on. Moreover, reading on the web tends to " reward" our brains in a more stimulating way
than do books not only in terms of speed but with more frequent, non-textual, imagery. And that's assuming that we don't wander away and engage in less constructive but more amusing pursuits
A friend of mine, a serious scholar who speaks many languages and reads more, disconnected his internet at home for a time because it was too tempting a presence and was interfering with his tackling more challenging books. It was too easy to put off the intellectual heavy lifting in favor of intellectual entetainment. He's since returned to the online world, but now is more disciplined about his use of time there. As much as I enjoy the blogosphere and certain listervs and forums, they don't replace the experience of serious reading with
a good book
. I like marking up my books and scrawling, at times furiously, in the margins. Many great historical figures were voracious readers, from John Adams to Joseph Stalin, they revealed much of themselves in the marginalia found in the books of their private libraries.
That being said, Carr is also proffering a very old argument
, one that is renewed with each new revolution in communication. Marshal McLuhan
was not incorrect in his philosophy but he was correct up to a point; substantive content still retains a deeper influence than does presentation - though some forms of presentation are more equal than others. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
will resound through the ages as an epitome of prose, but it can also be reformatted
and it will then be understood by some for whom the meaning may have previously been elusive. This doesn't mean the new format is better but that it has utility.
There is also, I humbly suggest, a self-referential quality at work here. Some of the people complaining about the internet distracting them from reading today were the ones who were vegging in front of the tube yesterday instead of picking up that copy of War and Peace
. Tomorrow these folks may be complaining about the computer chips in their heads
or some other innovation. Mediums of communication are means and not ends; they are not dictating that we make poor choices with the use of our time.
The road you take is oftentimes less important than your wilingness to get up and take it.