This was a blog post written for an Arts and Humanities writing class.
In his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Nicholas Carr addresses the present-day pervasiveness of internet use, and the cerebral pitfalls that it may cause. He writes of the possibility of the internet, or even computer use, changing the physiology of our brains to lessen the ability to “draw our own inferences and analogies, [and] foster our own ideas.” Furthermore, he argues, while Google may heighten thought productivity by efficiently providing a multitude of resources, it also has a financial interest in keeping us clicking – and therefore, keeping us distracted from cognition. His article assumes that the mode of reading and writing shapes our thoughts and their quality, and that in particular, shorter attention spans negatively impact deep thinking. His somewhat linear reasoning, however, relies heavily on anecdotal evidence, a bias that ultimately hurts his argument.
Throughout his article, Carr argues for the causal relationship of internet use, and the inability to deeply absorb or reflect upon reading. Carr raised instances from his own experience and his friend’s similar experiences of having developed a shorter attention span from their extensive internet use. He states, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”; Carr’s friend Bruce Friedman, who writes blogs, claims that he is now no longer capable of reading War and Peace. But is it not at least a possibility that the development of their shorter attention spans is rooted in something other than internet use? We must take into account that cause is not equal to correlation. The inability to read War and Peace may, in fact, be caused by the astonishingly fast pace at which we live our lives today. Whereas ten years ago we may have had the time to sit and read a hefty Tolstoy novel with measurable progress, today, we lament a slow-loading internet page because we feel as though we barely have time to sit and wait. What was considered efficient then is now considered slow, and it could just as likely be attributed to the societal need to increase productivity, which takes away from the time we used to have for reading. Carr does not discuss or disprove the possibility of a correlative relationship, and his argument is weakened because of it.
For the moment, I will assume that the mode of reading does affect one’s thoughts. What Carr implies here is that the two correlations – reading mode and thoughts, and writing mode and thoughts – are symmetric; in which case, each part must also be equal. To force equality between reading and writing would be difficult, including the physiological aspects of both. So, even if that is true for reading, it may not necessarily be true for writing. According neuropsychological findings, reading and writing abilities come from the same general part, though different areas of the brain: language comprehension is associated with Wernike’s area, while expression of language is linked to Broca’s area. In spite of that, while it can be reasonably argued that reading and writing are closely related, it seems far-fetched that they are also similarly affected by external factors.
Another anecdotal example Carr raises as a case for mode of product shaping thought is that of Nietzsche’s stylistic change in writing after he began to write with a typewriter: Nietzsche’s writing began to take an aphoristic style that was terser than it was in the past. It is questionable whether the mode of writing can shape thoughts at all. But it is certainly difficult argue that it cannot, since from my own experience, I do find that it can have an effect on the quality and style of writing.
When I write creatively, poetry and other sorts of artistic writing comes much more easily when writing with pen and paper. Conversely, I find that the style that emerges on a Word document reads with a comparatively straight-forward tone. How my thoughts are expressed, however, is not dependent upon what my thoughts are. Macrocosmically, it is certain that Nietzsche’s writing was no less influential or deep when he began to write in aphorisms with a typewriter, which was when some of his most well known works were written.
This still leaves the possibility of thoughts being affected by internet reading, which is by contrast, not far-fetched. Carr asserts that deep thinking can only come from deep reading, which he defines as the quiet reading of a book. Carr adds that deep thinking is also fostered “…by any other act of contemplation,” which, when applied to reading, is to critically think about the reading itself. By extension, then, it must be true that this “act of contemplation” can also be applied to what one reads on the internet. Carr has made a strong case for the difficulties of truly engaging with the material that is offered online by virtue of the medium, though he seems to forget throughout most of his article that reading is only as beneficial as the reader’s engagement and reflection with the material. Indeed, it can be taken as a truth that now more than ever, much more effort is required to focus on a piece of writing. But what he is expressing – that reading books offers cognitively what reading pages on the internet cannot – supposes that people (and young adults in particular) are so hooked on the internet that they no longer read books. And that, as evidenced by the thriving book market and the popularity of the Harry Potter series, is quite untrue.
There comes a point, however, when correlation occurs with such frequency that the relationship appears to be causal. It is also possible that the inability to read one piece of writing for a prolonged period of time has happened to enough people enough times to be considered an issue that threatens critical thinking in the masses. Carr has provided a good amount of anecdotal evidence, as well as psychological evidence from developmental psychologist, Maryanne Wolf. He certainly provided enough evidence to make his readers think about the (his) problem with Google, and find commonalities with in their own experiences as they read through his article. I will concede that I also related to his anecdotes as I was reading “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” though not all to an equal degree; I could relate to the specific account about Nietzsche far more than I could with Carr’s own, or with those of his friends’.
It is difficult, however, to avoid reflection upon what you read, since a reaction is in itself reflective. Thus, Google’s monetarily-driven goal to keep us clicking may also benefit internet users. The different perspectives that the internet is able to quite immediately provide is not something to be discounted. A broad perspective, after all, is as important to intellect as a deep one. The same should go with horizontal analysis versus vertical analysis.
Regardless of whether the quality of our thoughts will be compromised by the easy distractions that the internet provides, reading from the internet will become increasingly prevalent and convenient. It has, with unapologetic and impressive zest, declared itself essential to modern education, and if we want to keep up with modernity, we have to give in to its presence. Perhaps the internet will change the way we think, but certainly not in the sense that it thought, in the future, will lack depth. And perhaps it will be as revolutionary. Google as the new Gutenberg: Luddites, stand aside.