Is Google Making Us Stupid? Are rock albums evil? Do comic books lead to truancy? Who knows? Perhaps, who cares? I take seriously the historical point that Jason Farman makes that new technologies, media, etc. have often caused alarm and likely flurries of whatever the historical equivalent to a “think-piece” is. It’s an interesting question whether new forms of communication, research, interaction and so forth facilitated through digital technologies change how we think.
But, it’s also one I’m not too concerned about. Though I have noticed on the rare occasion that I drive I rely heavily on GPS in a way I didn’t before, I find I can’t get too worked up about the dangers of the internet on attention. I do worry about the disconnection of people from each other and whether “slacktivism” and internet petition signing are eroding the emancipatory potential of actual social movements. But, I don’t personally find my attention wavering or my depth of reading changing. Studies purporting to show a rise in people “skimming” and “bouncing” from website to website rather than deeply reading are unconvincing to me. Is it an intrinsic virtue to slog through the dense and antiquated language of Shakespeare, for example, rather than read a summary? I’m not sure.
There are, to be frank, a lot of long and uninteresting things to read both on the internet and in print. And neither length nor difficulty equate, necessarily, with more depth or complexity. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, for example, is more than 1,000 pages and contains one very silly idea repeated ad nauseam. I mention this very stupid book because people with real power in U.S. government claim it as their intellectual foundation. Additionally, I find some of Jacques Derrida’s ideas engaging, but I mostly hate the complex and obtuse prose in his work.
In any case, I’m not wholly convinced it isn’t simply a matter of rose-colored nostalgia (or perhaps even elitism) that sees shorter, more varied media on the internet as a worrying influence on the brain. And indeed it is now much easier as well to produce and engage with audio and video information than in the past. Are we trading reading for listening? Maybe? Again, if this were true I’m not sure it’s really anything to be concerned about.
All technologies stretching back to settled agriculture and the wheel have changed human life and likely how we think about the world. And I remain unconvinced that the internet has degraded discourse, conversation, or engagement with ideas. Indeed no “golden age” can ever be said to have existed. Novels were once seen as a distraction, and perhaps danger, not the height of bourgeois culture they seem to be now. So, maybe War and Peace is boring? Maybe it’s wonderful? I don’t know, I haven’t read it. I probably never will. That doesn’t worry me.
* As a slight aside and footnote, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how funny it is that Nicholas Carr keeps referring to “the Net” in his piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” It’s interesting how fast language changes as I would hazard no one calls the internet “the Net” anymore. And indeed, in my mind this seems anachronistic for an article published in 2008. I think of the Net as a term akin to others like “cyberspace,” “world wide web” and, best of all the, “information superhighway” from the those heady, early digital days of the 1990s.