Is The Internet Rewiring My Brain?

As someone who once spent three weeks as a copy-edit intern, and thus as someone highly qualified to pass judgment on any copy-editing decision ever made, the following are my issues with the Atlantic headline “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

  1. The web is much bigger than Google;
  2. While it is mentioned several times, the article is not about Google itself;
  3. “Stupid” is a value judgment, and thus an inaccurate headline for an article that instead focuses mostly on the value-neutral, meta-thought-process changes wrought by the web.

On to the substance of Nicholas Carr’s piece: some yes, and also no.

I was reading a response to the article that notes how few of the piece’s critics will cop to having had a, “Hey, that’s cool, I’ll read this thing I found … oh wait, that looks cooler … what was I originally reading again?” experience. I will more than cop to that, as it happens to me almost every day. In one hour today I bounced between Newsweek, The A.V. Club, Rotten Tomatoes and several friends’ sites, to the point that it took me an average of 20 minutes to get through each article that would have taken five minutes without the distraction of the others. So yes, I do an incredibly greater amount of skimming online than I would in print.

But–always a but. Skimming online doesn’t mean I avoid skimming the newspaper, or even skimming the library. Back in the day I used to sit in this great, undisturbed backroom at the Carnegie Library picking out books on World War I or II, leafing through each one until a passage caught my eye and then putting the book back before moving on to another. (Lest you worry too much for my back-in-the-day social life, I did do plenty of things that didn’t entail sitting alone in libraries. But then I do have a strong nerd side, so it wasn’t an insignificant amount of reading.) The reality is that briefly glancing over things to find the meaty parts didn’t come along with the web.

And on the book tip, I think this paragraph is especially strange:

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?”

I do appreciate the link to Scott Karp’s Publishing 2.0, which is right up my professional alley and which I hadn’t read before. But really, no more books and in-depth tomes? In the past two weeks I made it through Generation Kill and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I can safely say that my experience of each was in no way harmed by my Internet reading habits. A book is just a different experience: when I want wide-ranging and cursory, I’ll read online. (I’d say this brief familiarity with so many topics is more useful in a hugely varietal world than knowing just a few topics very well.) When I do want that informed look at just one topic, I pick up a book. I don’t think a failure to pick up a book is all that widespread among people who are reading a lot otherwise online; so many of the cultural touchstones for intelligent online readers of, say, The Atlantic continue to come from books. If you’re hung up on the printed format, we now have Kindle to bring books up to speed with other electronic publishing.

So yes, the web is restructuring how we consume media, and probably even restructuring our thought processes. It doesn’t mean older formats are going to be erased and crowded out. I think Carr makes this point himself in the last few paragraphs when he talks about the advent of writing, and of the printing press. Oral communication didn’t die with writing, nor will in-depth thought on a single topic die with the web.

The more forms of information that come along, the better.

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2 Responses to “Is The Internet Rewiring My Brain?”

  1. What a load of shit! At work I spend the majority of my day online. I google and read and skim all day long. On my lunch hour and at night I read books. I have no problem with either.

    Maybe Scott Karp is simply not very smart, is allowing himself to be dumbed down, or is using the internet as an excuse to dumb himself down.

  2. Patrick,
    I used to read all my life, and now I have a hard time picking up a book. I never connected it to the Internet, but for me, I think it is all the demands on attention, such as email coming all the time, cell phones ringing, never leaving us any time to think or focus for lengthy periods. It’s too much information, and too many interruptions, too often, so people don’t get used to having to focus for longer periods.

    Posted by Cece | July 30th, 2008 at 4:12 pm

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