Atlantic article on the Googlizing of our brains

Continuing with this summer's theme of how the Internet is ruining reading and writing and publishing and everything we all liked about the good old days of yesteryear, Nicholas Carr has an interesting piece, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" that updates the age-old story about how tools shape the user of the tool -- in this case, it's the Googlization of the brain and the end of the ability to read books. I liked the article, though it promises more than it delivers, biting into a compelling subject and then swiftly choking it down instead of chewing it the proper 33 times. Maybe that was part of the point. Then again, it seems like it might be part of -- irony alert -- a book.

After relating anecdotes from friends and colleagues who find their ability to read books or even long blog posts rapidly deteriorating, Carr asks why this is happening. And it's because our brains are becoming more machine-like. Here's a sample passage:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web -— the more links we click and pages we view -— the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link —- the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

Books and the Innertubes have two different purposes: the book is for leisure, it disconnects you from everything -- a book becomes its own Google, the only God-damned Google you need, and it balloons into everything else besides, holding the universe including, most importantly, you the reader, in its generous mind hug. Google, on the other hand, offers a chintzy path to every sparkling sidetrack detail about every single thing you could think of and a great deal you never would have thought to think of, all the while carefully placing billboards alongside you on your journey to, as it usually turns out, noplace in particular.

Yesterday I Googled "cutting dog whiskers" (because our dog groomer did this to our dog and I was worried) and ten minutes later I was reading about the French president's wife. You may surf the Web, but you Scuba dive a book. Cranial Googlizing is about getting you to trade in your air tank and flippers for bleached bangs and a boogieboard (all due respect to the actual sport of surfing).

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
Well ... deep reading is possible because somebody else did the deep thinking for you and set it down so you could follow. Which is wonderful -- probably the most wonderful thing humans ever did, as far as I'm concerned. What I worry about is, yes, okay, the Internet may be mutating our minds to become easily distracted and unable to focus on one thing for long -- but what about the other end of it? What about writing? Yes, yes, "It's great for research!" Face it, though. Research is for details. In most cases, research is that perfect doorknob. It ain't the house.

Charles Dickens did not spend hours a day chuckling at Youtube clips or sailing off on an Andrew Sullivan link. Instead, he sat in his attic and wrote. With pen and paper. His children would come upstairs to tell him it was time for dinner and catch him acting out his characters' dialog in front of a mirror. I just think the kind of material that comes from such meditation and isolation is probably gone forever. I mean, there's no denying I spend more time dicking around on the Internets than I do writing my book (see this post). The totally tubular Tubes may be lobotomizing readers, but it's also surely chipping away at the ability to create the things readers can't seem to read anymore anyway.

P.S. You can cut a dog's whiskers, but not a cat's.


HGF said...

Grendel, good thing Holland went out: you're clearly being over-stimulated by the Old World! I think the Dickens' legacy lives on, at least for the moment; whether it's Offutt's eleven drafts hammered out in his basement or Edward P. Jones's lack of furniture or Marilynne's twenty years of background reading. Novel-writing's crazy solitude (and research) will seem even crazier as time goes on, perhaps even anachronistic the way monasteries seem now. Schools will keep reading alive for the foreseeable future . . . But it's eerie--a day before you posted this, one of my co-workers reported this very same thing, that her smart teenage son (the son of two academics) was finding it "harder to read." Meanwhile, his high school devotes class time each week to silent reading--trying to instill and reinforce in kids the fundamentals of being alone and quiet with a book. The battle is on.

Grendel said...

Yes, readers of books will be the new symphony supporters and election day poll workers -- quaint and advancing in age.

Also, I meant to say "at least for those participating in modern Western culture." Obviously for writers in the developing world things have changed less. I could seclude myself with candles and stacks of parchment and quills and inkwells and ... traca? traca, where are you going? WAIT, I was just kidding!...