Some of you may remember Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” that was published back in 2008. I recall reading the article and leaving somewhat skeptical of Carr’s overall argument. Since then Carr has expanded his argument giving birth to a book discussing the Internet and how it is changing our mental landscape. Well, being the sucker I am to read anything on the subject of reading, let alone reading and the Internet, I couldn’t resist giving Carr another shot.
Essentially, Carr’s argument is that reading on the Internet and the distractions inherent in the medium—distractions such as hyperlinks, multitasking, our reactions to pushed content like email and RSS feeds, and just the opportunity to drift away—is changing our brains. And if we don’t exercise reading in the traditional sense, that is reading a long argument or narrative without distractions, our brains will change accordingly, perhaps even completely losing their ability to focus and concentrate on complicated arguments. I don’t think anyone would disagree with the argument that what we do with our time changes our brains. Nevertheless, asking the question implies at least to some readers that there is a problem.
Steven Johnson has been critical of the argument that the Internet or even other mediums such as television are making us dumber. And he makes a good argument. Nevertheless, as Johnson would even agree, how we spend our time does change our brains. I believe this is what Carr is sharing with his readers. Carr isn’t trying to force the genie back into the bottle and he isn’t saying there aren’t advantages to new technologies. He even admits that he wouldn’t want to give up his favorite technologies. Instead he is trying to get his readers to recognize what might be lost due to spending too many hours reading on the Internet. Just like the lost to oral memory skills before the invention of writing, today’s readers might be losing the ability to sit, read, comprehend, and contemplate a long written work.
I find myself agreeing with both Carr and Johnson finding the answer somewhere in between. In a general sense I believe that mediums, such as the Internet, even television and video games, create and drive different kinds of reading and visual intelligences that in general do increase the overall intelligence of the masses. But on the other hand just like we have lost the capacity to commit to memory incredible amounts of information—a feat accomplished at least by some in the ancient and medieval worlds (see The Art of Memory by Francis Yates) that astounds the modern mind—we could be on the verge of losing our capacity to sit, read, comprehend and even produce works such as Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason. Clearly, the Internet, and television for that matter, has had nothing to do with keeping many previous generations from reading, let alone wanting to read, Kant. Nevertheless, some of us may want to do so, and some of us should be able to do so, and there we find Carr’s concern in how we spend our time reading.