Nick Carr and Scott Karp: Is The Web Making Us Stupid?

Nick Carr suggests in his recent Atlantic Monthly article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, that the way we use the Web is changing the way we operate, which he is mistakenly characterizing as becoming stupid:

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.

I agree with much of what Carr says, which I can summarize in this way:

  1. Reading – and rational analysis or synthesis of what is read – is not an innate skill, like speech. People are born illiterate (and innumerate, and irrational, by the way), and need to be trained to use written language as a tool of understanding.
  2. Pre-web notions of reading, writing, and rational analysis were based on “big chunks” – like books, or essays. The skills that we developed to manipulate these big chunks involved longer timeframes – the hours or days involved in reading and contemplating their meaning in the context of other author’s thoughts encoded in the big chunk format.
  3. As a result of this model, the conversation about ideas was itself conducted in big chunks – one author citing another author’s work within a book or an essay – and the pace of conversation was, as a result, relatively slow.

The Web has showed up, and increasingly we find that more of what is going by is written and manipulated in a “small chunk” manner: specifically, authors produce a stream of writing encoded into small pieces which are hyperlinked to other author’s thoughts and surmises. While the same core skills of reading and rational thought about the meaning of written ideas are involved, the pace and patterns of discourse about ideas have changed. And we are changed by the use of the new thinking tools we are using:

Scott Karp clarifies things a bit:

[from Connecting The Dots Of The Web Revolution – Publishing 2.0]

Maybe the reason why Nick and so many other literati are losing their patience with long form information is that it is so fundamentally inefficient and inferior to connected bits of information.

You look at a book, read a book, and you easily perceive a coherent whole. You look at all the information on that book’s topic on the web, all connected, and you can’t see the sum of the parts — but we are starting to get our minds around it. We can’t yet recognize the superiority of this networked thinking process because we’re measuring it against our old linear thought process.

Nick romanticizes the “contemplation” that comes with reading a book. But it’s possible that the output of our old contemplation can now be had in larger measure through a new entirely non-linear process.

Just look at this post. If there’s any insight here (which still remains to be seen), it didn’t come from a linear process of A to B to C. It came from all of these seemingly random nodes connecting, and all these bits of information coming together, and then suddenly I saw the whole. If you had watched me, tracked my reading and my thoughts, you would have judged me positively scatological by traditional standards.

I agree with Scott. As we expose ourselves to a flow of information, running at a faster and significantly more conversational pace, two things are happening at once:

  1. Small Pieces, Loosely Joined – Instead of large works by one author (or a few authors) being consumed in large, independent chunks, in a linear fashion, we have moved to a model – to use David Weinberger’s beautiful phrase – of Small Pieces, Loosely Joined. We don’t proceed in a stately, linear analysis of the ideas being presented by the author(s), but by jumping from observation to linked counter argument to supporting reference. As Scott says, more in parallel through a network than linearly.
  2. More Voices, More Social – The nature of this networked model of reading and writing opens the door to hearing more voices in discussion about the ideas, and less solitary voices in deep contemplation. I naturally favor the form built on connectedness and open discourse.

The flow of socialized discourse in small chunks changes us. We are stressing different cognitive centers of the brain. Since any sort of reasoning based on written language is a learned response to stimuli, as we provide ourselves new stimuli – new models of reasoning – our brains change shape: we adapt, we learn. We do not, however, become stupid. It would be stupid to try to make sense of this new way of communicating by using old skills that don’t work very well in this new setting.

If Nick Carr wants to say that this new sort of sense making is a form of stupidity, he is free to do so, but he is profoundly wrong. He seems to be saying that the Web has blunted the knife edge of this rational mind; I believe he has been given a new knife, steel instead of bronze. Or perhaps one with many blades?

As I have been saying for years, the inherent conservatism of the mass media and other mass organizations (those that are based on one:many modes of communication, like government, religions, business, and so on) will lead them to say that this new sort of thinking is illegitimate: they war against it, saying that our new ways of talking and thinking and the social structures that they engender are bad, inferior, immoral, and stupid; and that those in favor of this web revolution are dumb, misguided, or evil fringe lunatics.

Expect more of this. As we move to the edge, those in the center are threatened by the changing of everything, and they will do almost anything to stop it, or at least slow it down as much as possible. It’s a social revolution, and those who are losing control will go a long way to stop it, if they think they can.

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