Stupid’s Not Quite The Right Word…

It’s unfortunate Nicholas Carr’s new article in the Atlantic is titled Is Google Making Us Stupid?, because the headline is inviting some pretty easily-dished-out ridicule. The title should have been, Is Google Making Us…Different?, as that’s the argument Carr is putting forward. So when Carr points out the Internet makes it much easier to “skim” articles, Blaise Alleyne asks why this is “chilling” (a word not even used by Carr, but instead comes from a snarky post on Radar Online) and “problematic.” Carr doesn’t say that — he doesn’t say skimming is “bad.” What Carr says is:

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.

…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.

Similarly, Mathew Ingram questions the “skimming activity” reference as well:

So let me get this straight — students skim things when they’re researching topics? Wow. That’s a real bombshell there. And the news that people skim information on the Internet doesn’t seem all that earth-shattering either; after all, there’s about a billion times as much info out there (broadly speaking) as there was a decade ago. Of course people are skimming.

Both critiques miss an essential element to Carr’s argument: medium theory. The simple version of this is McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” and as Carr points out, it’s not just the act of “skimming” that’s the issue, but the media through which we conduct this activity:

Reading…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…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.

Carr points to another example of how another technology (McLuhan, in fact, viewed all technology as “media”) , the mechanical clock, changed our sense of self:

The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away…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.”

I actually don’t think there’s much controversy about his overall premise — is there doubt that technology changes us, the way we think, and they way we think of ourselves? The work of McLuhan and Walter Ong is especially insightful here. The advent of the printing press, for example, transformed the act of reading from something “oral” and outward (even after writing, during what Ong and McLuhan call “manuscript culture,” reading was often done aloud) to something “interior.” Ong, in Orality and Literacy, describes the world of orality by asking us to “imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything.” For oral cultures, phrases such as “look up” or “take a note” or “read through” are empty, as they are visual metaphors, rooted in literacy and writing.

Technologies of literacy have always impacted our subjectivity, and today’s digital media are no exception.

This is what I think makes Carr’s article so powerful, that he’s articulating something we all know and sense. Can we really spell all that well anymore, when our spell-checkers do it for us? Can we write in cursive, when we now type our expressions (danah boyd has noted this…)? Can we continue to remember, when wikipedia does it for us?

Carr:

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.

…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.

That’s the essential argument. That’s the question Carr is asking — how are we being reprogrammed?

In the end, I have no problem with critiquing Carr’s work. In fact, he asks his readers to be skeptical of his skepticism, likening himself somewhat to a modern-day Socrates, who bemoaned the advent of a new technology (writing), but missed the many ways literacy would expand human knowledge. But if we’re going to critique his work, we should at least not miss the essential message, even if the headline stupidly uses the word stupid (Carr never uses this term in his piece…). Carr doesn’t “hate the Internet,” and I think to set this article up as a Keen-style piece of pessimism is a bit unfair, and misses the point.

Yes, the headline is bad. And yes, Carr is something of a professional contrarian, but he’s asking the right questions, and provoking a discussion that’s not really happening outside of academic circles right now.

If he is a professional contrarian, he’s one I don’t mind having around…

[Update] Carr points to a thoughtful response from Jon Udell.

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